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 Yes, the information might be out-of-date.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.