The Pleasure of Finding: A Lost Joy

Dictionaries. Thesauri. Encyclopedias. Card Catalogues.

I used to have a large dictionary in my classroom, one that I inherited from the previous resident. The students disliked when, after they asked to use their “device” to look up a word, I’d hand them the dictionary, then teach them how to use it. That was work! It was so much easier to have $SEARCHENGINE$ do it. The dictionary vanished last year. I don’t know if one of the English faculty borrowed it and accidentally added it to her reference shelf, or if a student smuggled it out so that later generations might be spared the pain of looking up words in a heavy book.

I suppose link-hopping or WikiWandering are how the curious spend time, instead of reading what is around the desired dictionary word, or encyclopedia article. Both waste time, sort of, although learning isn’t always time-wasting. I suspect most of my readers grew up occasionally browsing dictionaries and encyclopedias and wandering through card catalogues out of curiosity. How much did we absorb as we drifted from the officially-sought topic to other intriguing (or useful “ooh, I can call someone this and he won’t have a clue that it’s an insult”) information. Grab a random volume off the shelf, or open the tome to a random page, and start browsing away. Yes, the information might be out-of-date. In a few cases, that’s the strength of older reference books. If you can get your hands on a pre-1920 set of the Encyclopedia of Islam, you have a goldmine of accurate information. After that? Well, there’s been some selective alteration and gilding, let us say. Likewise certain other encyclopedias and reference works. And people seem to retain what they read on page far more than what they read on screen.

I’ve written before about the advantages – for some things – of card catalogues. Those who had to maintain and update the files would disagree, as would most modern librarians. Especially in the early days of electronic library catalogues, the old system was far more forgiving of error and uncertainty than the hyper-precise systems. A keyword might not be enough – you had to know Boolean systems and terminology in order to enter what you hoped might lead to the book or journal that you sought. Some of us were not taught that, making finding things an exercise in unproductive frustration. Most modern library catalogues are better, or at least easier to start using, but it depends on how things are searched for and logged. One example: I was looking for books on Gypsies, or Roma. Using Roma led to romance novels, not the Library of Congress Subject. Romania? Also romance novels, or Roman history (and historical novels about Rome). I told the reference librarian, who sighed and added it to the list of complaints.

I don’t want to go back to the world of “we have to go to the library to find that,” not really, no matter how much I enthuse about things. And the electronic search systems are faster, and can lead to things not usually found in the older versions (like magazine and journal articles). There needs to be a balance, one I’m not sure we can easily find. The genii is out of the bottle, and making younger people go back to the paper versions of Dictionary DOT com could lead to rebellions. But I think some kids are missing a true pleasure, the thrill of discovery and exploration some of us get thumbing through reference books, never knowing what gems we might find.

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15 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Finding: A Lost Joy

  1. My family had a set of Collier’s Encyclopedia. I would pick a volume at random, open the book at random, and start reading. I have since discovered that encyclopedia publishers would include fake articles to discourage plagiarism be other encyclopedia publishers (figuring that no one would look up a fake reference). I wonder if…?

    • I still have my family’s Collier’s Encyclopedia set, less a couple of volumes that disappeared after being taken to school by various siblings. Also have several years worth of the annual update volumes.

  2. There were also the things you could find as bookmarks, left between the pages by previous readers. I found a twenty-Rand note in a library encyclopedia once: at then-current exchange rates, the equivalent of about $10 in the mid-1980’s. Guess who ate out at the local burger joint that night?

    • The best I’ve ever heard of is the one my wife left when she was a Chemistry grad student in the mid 1980’s. One Friday she was looking something up and had nothing suitable so stuck her wallet (a small slim one) into the volume of chemical journals she was fishing through. Ultimately she found what she was looking for in a different volume and reshelved the volumes including the one with her wallet. I scooped her up from the library, we went home and had dinner. Everything needing a wallet I did over the weekend I did, not knowingly,it just happened I drove, I got us lunch etc etc. Come Monday morning she (strangely) couldn’t find her wallet. We looked everywhere and I was late to work, we ordered up new license, student ID and credit card and started fixing the issue. A little over 6 months later another graduate student needed the same volume (working the same issue in Advanced Organic likely) found the wallet and recognized the name and the license picture and returned the wallet.

  3. And the ‘real’ meaning of words, not the latest wiki/wokie/agenda driven ‘definition’… Grrr… I still have a set of encyclopedias and and old 1950s dictionary on my book shelves.

  4. I’d read our World Book encyclopedia for fun as a kid, and occasionally the 1970s vintage Britannica I’d bought after getting my BS degree. I was bemused (and rather annoyed) at the Brit’s entry on coyotes; the writer of said entry could not understand why mean ranchers would possibly want to get rid of coyotes on their land. Since I ran across that nugget shortly after a local horse had been killed by coyotes, an encyclopedia-sized hole in my bookshelves was inevitable.

    In the 1960s, a newspaper columnist (Sidney J. Harris if memory serves) had an occasional feature covering “things encountered when looking up something else”. That was a lot of fun.

  5. Growing up, we got the 1974 World Book encyclopedia set. Being a bookish child in a house with few books, with no other kids near my age anywhere nearby, I read it. Twice. Tried reading the dictionary, but that was boring, with not enough pictures. There wasn’t much other entertainment in summer, except for tending the garden so we’d have food over winter.

  6. While I enjoy our online access very much, I understand the downsides. I wonder if kids these days do? I was never good at consulting a dictionary when reading. Too much work, and it interrupted the flow of reading for too long. I just filed the word away in my brain for future reference if I later encountered it enough times to look it up. I sincerely love being able to click on a word, and bring up its definition. THAT doesn’t interrupt my flow. I only wish we did that with acronyms–there used to be a widget called a tool-tip. Stop that! Stifles old programmer.. I never did learn so-called phonetic spelling. Is that like learning to read musical notation? Except for the accent mark, it rarely helped me. Now I can look up a word with one-click, then get some computer voice to pronounce it for me.

    I also remember being amused in the 60’s when I went to our encyclopedia and found the entry for “World War, The”. Should have read it rather than just laughed and mocked it.

    On the other end of the spectrum, my wife taught Chemistry and Physics in high school one year back in the early 80s. She asked the class what the log base 10 of 100 was. When they all whipped out their calculators, she said, “STOP! If you know what a logarithm is, you know the answer is 2! You shouldn’t be using things you don’t understand. Calculators and other digital instruments led her to spend at least one session of her college Chemistry classes on “significant figures”. A whole system of “SigFig” had to be invented to determine which numbers were real when an instrument could spit out 20 decimal places but only measure accurately to 2. It gets more complicated when you’re dealing with a dozen measurements of different levels of accuracy, so there are rules about how you’re allowed to report the results.

    And that’s just the innocent problems, not the ill-intended ones like advertising or woke-speak.

    • I can’t go into details, but several years ago, a group of students were quite chagrined when I pulled up the site they’d used for answers and pointed out why they all got the question wrong. Sort of a collective facepalm that confirmed at least three suspicions of mine.

      Let’s just say that reading the entire paragraph would have been a good idea.

      • Indeed wife teaches introductory chemistry. One of the tools that is used is a thing called electron dot diagrams or configurations. There are some special rules that are NOT generally taught as they are rather specialized. There are also web sites that will do an electron dot configuration if you ask them. But they use the advanced rules which the Freshman have NOT been taught. She warns them that using the tools is lazy and will NOT teach you the information the process teaches you. My wife usually throws a few problems of that sort into the homework. If she sees the “Right” answer not the one the rules they know should yield the student gets a warning on their paper that using the sites is meaning they don’t know how to do the process. There is almost always at least one on the exam with that technique. That then acts as a hint that the student has (in violation of the statement that they signed that is at the front of the test) used their cell phone or a similar device.

  7. Considering that the local state’s library interchange has a ridiculous amount of trouble handling “King John Plantagenet” as a search string…

    I’m not sold on the “new” tech.

    I don’t recall the old system ever actively trying to steer me away from the topic I was trying to research.
    (There WERE big blank spaces on occasion. The one I readily remember was “steam engine technical”. There was nothing. There should have been diagrams, specifications, defunct manufacturers, even plans. In an engineering school. That was founded while the steam engine was the primary source of power.)

    I have one of those dictionaries.
    Unfortunately, it’s currently in my closet. The kids tried to destroy it. I need to rebind it.

  8. One interesting problem with online research that can be a problem in K-12 education:
    I took a Biology class to the computer lab to do research on various illnesses. One girl was investigating breast cancer.
    She showed me the resource she had found on the internet. We scrolled down through the website. “Looks good to me,” I said.
    At the bottom, the site had “For more information, click here.”
    “Shall I try it?” she asked.
    “Sure, go ahead.”
    So she did.
    It took her straight to a porn site. and she couldn’t get out. We had to get off the internet to get off the site.
    She thought that she was in major trouble, but I told her to do it!

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