Tomes of Knowledge

Mar 11, 2004

It doesn’t surprise me that encyclopedias are going the way of the Dodo. In my last year or so of college, I avoided those tomes – instead favoring UMBC’s deal with the online version of Britannica to fuel my research projects. That’s right. Even in 1996, I was favoring virtual books over real ones.

I found it amusing that I happened upon this story just days after the wife and I spent a Saturday cleaning out the shed. While doing so, I came across two cardboard boxes of encyclopedias, previously purchased one at a time from the local grocery store by my mother in an effort to instill some of them smarts in the younger members of the family. I’m not so sure it worked and, while moving those heavy boxes from one place to another, I realized that not only did I not have any desire to move these books into the house, I didn’t know if I’d ever see them displayed on the shelf again. I have a young child. Surely, I’d assumed that I’d need them at some point.

The problem, of course, is by the time my child gets his first book report, encyclopedias may be missing from even the dusty corners of the local library. They may be gone entirely, replaced by search box displayed prominently on a computer screen. Card catalogues have already gone this route. That series of giant tomes from Funk & Wagnalls are sure to be next, if they aren’t already.

As a computer scientist, the advantages of a computer and the internet are very apparent. A searchable CD is a lot more user friendly than 20 separate books. The internet provides the world’s most massive source of knowledge. Despite some inherent problems with the internet (e.g. the validity of your source must still be ascertained and is often in question), the amount of information available to my fingertips makes the encyclopedias of the world seem like pathetic attempts at categorization. The multimedia aspect that computers bring to the table are the icing on a very sweet cake.

And as a parent with financial constraints, I know how my dollars will be spent. At $70, as opposed to $1000, and a single CD case, as opposed to entire shelf in my bookcase, something like Encarta is an easy choice. My child may never be witness to the toil of paging through those giant tomes in the library and the requirement to learn the alphabet to find what you want but the decision is really a no-brainer – quite possibly in more ways than one.

by | Categories: technology |

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