When I was a kid, my parents invested in a children’s encyclopedia series that cost them more than twice their household income.
Looking back, this investment certainly paid off. With its colourful pictures and glossy pages, the series told me stories from faraway lands, taught me about exotic creatures in deep jungles and informed me of ancient civilizations. As I grew up through the 90’s, this row of books taught me a thing or two about the joy of learning.
How relevant are those encyclopedias today, in a world where limitless information is available online?
Stepping back into the 90’s, a window into a bored afternoon of my life would see me being drawn towards the bookshelf – to the shiny golden letters on the spine of the encyclopedia’s books. I would then pick up an edition that struck my fancy, sit down in a corner and dive into its worlds. As I learnt new topics in school or elsewhere, I could connect them to something I had already read, thereby catalyzing my learning process.
And now for a thought experiment – given a PC and and an internet connection, how likely is a child to replicate this experience?
When it comes to information availability, the internet wins this competition hands down. The internet can provide constantly upgraded information at a cost that is negligible. Moreover, there are videos and animations, which add another exciting dimension to all the learning that is possible.
But then, there is curation. I define curation as both the likelihood of seeking out the right information and subsequently finding it. In other words, how likely are we to actually look for and find quality information online?
The odds of a child going online to learn something valuable on a bored afternoon is rather slim. Sure, with some work, this can be ensured. But there are too many distractions involved. Moreover, all of this valuable information is scattered across sites such as Quora, Netflix and Youtube, which are as much sources of distraction as they are of knowledge. The internet encourages skimming off its surface, rather than engaging in deep conversation with it. Books are designed to do the opposite.
The internet is filled with limitless knowledge that is poorly curated. A bookshelf has limited knowledge that is tightly curated. Our warehouses of curation are still libraries with their categorized shelves of physical books.
I would argue that in a world with ubiquitous internet, libraries and children’s’ encyclopedias’ are even more valuable. The internet lures most children into distraction and reinforces it as a habit, while unassuming bookshelves train them to become curators of information in the age of distraction.