My 8-year-old is finally going through that rite of passage, the third-grade report on a US state. He must research and write about the state bird and tree, natural features and famous residents. The word “diorama” was invoked. This landmark spurred my husband to say that it was time we invested in a set of encyclopedias.
“Why?” I asked. We helped our boy find the flag and symbols for his chosen state, Arizona, through the state’s official government web site. He could check out
research books from the library. What would encyclopedias do except cost a fortune, go out of date before they hit the shelf, and take up more than their share of bookshelf real estate?
Once, this would have sounded like sacrilege to me. When a complete new set of World Books arrived at my childhood home, my siblings and I tore off the tissue-paper wrappings on each volume in awe, admiring the gold-stamped letters and filing each book in order. It was the most luxurious present we had ever seen – especially in my hometown, which was only a stop on the traveling bookmobile’s route, with no library of our own until I was years older.
For years, whatever I needed to know, my father would tell me to look it up in the encyclopedia.
In our present world, though, I think my son will need to learn how to discriminate between endless online sources more than he’ll need to know how to use a book to look up a topic in alphabetical order. Also, for $1,044, the current retail price of a World Book set (though it was on sale yesterday for $659), we could buy him his own laptop.
My husband sees the physical encyclopedias as a key to a world of wonder, where our boy could browse and learn and be amazed by random pages. That was my husband’s childhood, I argued, but now those random discoveries occur online.
We will not have resolved the debate before the first report is due, however, so yesterday I took my boy to the library. The librarian helped him find some good Arizona books to check out. I asked her about encyclopedias. Easy, she told me – the library has the complete Encyclopedia Britannica.
And if we wanted to come around the counter to her computer, she offered, she could show us how to access the library's online version of the encyclopedia from our home.
As I told my husband, his childhood was his childhood. Many days it seems very distant from the world in which we are raising our boy.