Sunday, November 5, 2017

Reminiscing: Encyclopedia Bacon

When some of us got in trouble as kids, we’d get grounded. Our “timeouts” were much fiercer than standing or sitting in the corner for as many minutes as our ages. We’d be sent to our rooms to think about whatever stupidity we had done. These were the days before cell phones, computers, or tablets. Sitting for the day or evening could be tortuous for many of us, especially if we were just a bit high strung.

Yes, I had a television in my room, but it was a 13-inch, black and white thing with rabbit ears. Since my room was in the basement, I didn’t always get the best reception. Plus, it was safer for my parents not to hear the TV or the stereo if I had just gotten into trouble. We had to find other ways to occupy the time that was supposed to be spent thinking about our transgressions.

In my room, I had something else to occupy my time. I had books. And I got into enough trouble to be grounded to my room regularly. It’s where I truly began to read a lot. That’s not to say that I didn’t read a lot before that. Once I hit my teenage years, my reading went into overdrive. Prior to that, I would read as many books as I could for the Lockport Library Summer Reading Program. Those paled in comparison to what I read in the basement while in trouble.

I had a shelf that had a sparse collection of books that I scrounged at garage sales (always an excellent place to find great books when you’re young). I also had a small, golden shelf with a series of blue books on it. Those books came from my grandmother’s house. They were a 1956 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia. Amazingly, I read those encyclopedias. All of them. Let’s just say if there was a 1950s version of Trivial Pursuit, I would win.

One of the coolest things about those books was that at the head of each new letter in the alphabet (some volumes had more than one letter in them), there was a progression of each of the letters, from pictographs to Greek letters, to our modern letters. I was enthralled by that. I would write private messages in the old letters in my journals. (Google doesn’t have everything. I tried to find a sample page from those books. Alas, it was to no avail.)

Even when I wasn’t grounded, if I had some extra time before bed, I would continue on my quest to complete the whole set. There were a lot of books to get through. I eventually did get through them all. It helped with some school work I was doing, even if they were thirty years out of date. You might not think much changes over three decades, but you’d be wrong. The changes in our lives in that time were drastic. In the 1950s nuclear and coal power was the wave of the future. Someday, we might even have nuclear powered rockets to take us to the moon.

Part of the encyclopedia set was a series of yearbooks that came out each year, and which, for some reason, my grandmother purchased. They went all the way through the 1970s. Each of these books detailed the current events that were taking place around the world for that year. It was through these yearbooks that I got a better education on the Vietnam war than I ever got through the cursory paragraphs in my school history books. They were also where I got more information on the space race and our eventually landing on the moon, without the nuclear powered rockets.

I’m sure there are some of you who are thinking that I was quite a dork in those years. You’re absolutely right. However, reading and learning is something I truly enjoy. One of my favorite parts of working at the Historians Office is the research. There’s nothing quite as awesome as pouring over old documents, looking for clues. Without the perseverance that I developed while trying to read an entire encyclopedia set, I would never have the patience to spend that much time on research for, sometimes, a single paragraph’s worth of material in an article.

I also learned the importance of truly researching a subject. As an historian, I cannot take a single source, such as a news article written a century after the event, at face value. Those articles definitely have their importance in the overall narrative, but it is important to try to find first-hand accounts as close to the actual event as possible. Those newer articles often give clues on the prominent mindsets of that more modern time. They show an evolution of social norms.

The chase of the mystery is what keeps me going on projects. I sift through everything I can find. Sometimes, even 1956 encyclopedias can be a source. The way of thinking in the 1950s is far different than the way we think in 2017, and it is much, much different that the way people were thinking in the 1820s when Lockport was just rising from the wild forests of the Niagara Frontier. Gathering and reading all the research material is intriguing, much to the chagrin of my wife, who has to suffer through a living room scattered with books and paper.

A lot of this began when my grandmother gave me a simple set of encyclopedias when I was 12 or 13. They stayed in my bedroom until I moved out at 21. After that, I’m pretty sure they were lost to the dump or to a garage sale. I spent a lot of time in those pages. Even when I was younger and the books were nestled in the den at grandma’s house, I would spend time reading about various subjects. Reading is a passion. It’s a passion that I don’t think I could live without.

Craig Bacon is sad that printed encyclopedias have fallen out of vogue with the advent of the internet. However, he’s sure his wife and the floor joists of the house are perfectly happy with that.