Inspired by Katherine Schopflin’s talk on Encyclopedias, I thought I might write this week about my own experience of them.

*Historically inaccurate due to wide screen.

*Historically inaccurate due to wide screen.

As a child, the top shelf of the book cabinet in the living room was dominated by the twenty (I think) red volumes of the Children’s Britannica, which was probably bought in the late 1970s following the birth of my older siblings.

I loved it, but, in particular, loved two sections of it which I would often pull down from the shelf to pore over while half watching kids TV. These were the Atlas in Volume 20 and the Flags section – which had pages and pages of colour depictions of the world’s flags. I was obsessed with staring at maps for a long time, giving me an occasional cutting edge in quizzes. At the age of about 8, the world map started to alter dramatically and I don’t think I’ve ever really caught up. But these books (and the other Atlas we had, which I looked at a lot more, steadily destroying the top of the spine where my little finger would grab the book) gave me an early love of leafing through Reference books.

With Windows 95 came, not just the video for Weezer’s Buddy Holly, but Encarta, an encyclopedia on a CD-ROM which I think I had already been introduced to at school (I want to say via the Macs and their giant CD-ROM caddies but that surely makes no sense). It was amazing at the time – all those books worth of knowledge on one CD. I remember using it to write about Grace Kelly in an essay but, what really amazed us were the videos. This was the first time I’d seen one digitally and remember it blowing us away. The footage of the Hindenburg Disaster was watched far too much.

Since then, I have slowly gravitated toward single volume reference books like Brewers Dictionaries of Phrase and Fable (I’ve got Modern and London) and books about folklore in different towns. It’s great fun visiting a town and then reading up on stories related to it (incidentally, I should have a horse’s tail according to one).  When working at Maidstone Museum and then the Imperial War Museum, I started to use Wikipedia extensively to improve my cataloguing a little but mostly to improve my knowledge of what I was cataloguing.  At Maidstone, I had never come across such things as tsubas, acoustic jars or wax cylinders and, at the IWM, cataloguing oral history interviews, I was being introduced to places I’d never heard of alongside new (to me) battles and military equipment galore.  I wanted to know about these things – and instantly.  Wikipedia allowed me to learn as I went (and spell it all correctly too!).

As I discussed incoherently here last week (and more coherently during in the lecture), I think a big challenge for the e-Book is to replicate the sort of user experience you get from the non-linear nature of reference books- in terms of serendipity and perhaps even <imagine the appropriate word here, I’m sure it sounds like but isn’t tactically>. The Random button (and to a lesser extent other article links on the homepage, such as the Article of the Day) on Wikipedia does something to potentially start a similar voyage of knowledge; and CD-ROM encyclopedias weren’t a bad follow-up, but publishers are yet, as far as I know to have successfully designed an e-cyclopedia.

But what could the future hold.  If it is all about leafing and linking then a tablet could potentially be programmed to allow the reader to flick through in great chunks, while hyperlinks such as those seen in Encarta and Wikipedia could do the rest…