Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Knowledge of Civilization

Profound title, right?

Well, the knowledge of civilization is really quite a simple thing. Books. It's books that let us build on what those before did, even if they died long before we were born. Books also entertain us, teach our children, enthrall us and give us hope for the world.

When I was a child, my parents bought me the Children's Encyclopedia Brittanica. Not the full 32-volume monstrosity, but a shorter version designed for pre-teens. I read it.

Cover to cover.

I loved that book. My parents teased me about how you weren't 'supposed' to read an Encyclopedia cover to cover. I did it anyway. Then I went back and used it as it was intended. Sometimes I'd just read an entry, though, and bury my face in the book.

Eventually, it was given to another child as I outgrew it. But I still have fond memories of that set of red-bound books and a true appreciation of their value.

Yesterday, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. announced that this venerable encyclopedia is...going out of print.

Yes. Out of print. The end of an era...the first volume was published in Scotland in 1768.

From now on, the encyclopedia will be printed only in digital form. This will save shipping. It will save trees.

But...there will be no more red bound books for voracious young readers to hide under the covers with a flashlight with. No more splendid red and brown volumes on the shelf to be taken down when needed.

Ah, but we have the internet. We have all of the knowledge of civilization at our literal fingertips. We don't need red bound books.

Right.

I love electronic books. I love electronic publishing. But I also adore physical books. And that is beside the point.

If the only form in which our knowledge exists is the internet, then our entire civilization has become ephemeral. We could so easily lose everything.

I challenge Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. to produce just two or three hard copies and archive them properly.

I challenge everyone to keep a few hard bound, hard cover books safe...be they atlases, old college text books, encyclopedias, dictionaries. Let's make sure that the knowledge of civilization is safe for the future, even if the worst happens and we lose our much-vaunted technology.

Do I think that will happen? No. But I do think about the possibility.

Books matter. We need hard copy archives and we need them to be safe and distributed so that they do not suffer the fate of Alexandria.