“It’s like Google on paper!”

That’s a 21st-century kid’s reaction upon discovering a set of encyclopedias.

One morning I was going through Ranger’s lessons with him, and his reader featured one of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown stories. I consider Encyclopedia Brown mysteries to be one of the shining jewels of children’s literature. How can you not love books with lines like, “They called themselves the Tigers. They should have called themselves the Wooden Spoons. They were always stirring something up.”? (Note: The original stories from the 60s and 70s are best. The newer they are, the blander they get.)

I was very excited to introduce Ranger to the crime-foiling 10-year-old from Idaville. As the stories explain, Leroy Brown had read more books than most adults, and he remembered everything he read. He was like “a library in tennis shoes,” and all his friends called him Encyclopedia. That’s where my son and I hit a snag.

Ranger didn’t know what an encyclopedia was.

We no longer have a set here at home. To my kids, “look it up” means typing something into a search bar—or, indeed, merely asking Siri or Alexa. It’s a cool science-fiction world, but doesn’t entirely substitute for the lack of books. So later that week, I took Ranger and Sparkler on a field trip of discovery . . . to the library reference section.

They didn’t understand what the big deal was at first. Why go to the library to look at books you can’t even check out? Sparkler is currently fascinated by foxes, so I pulled out the index and showed them how to find the entry for foxes. Ranger located the right volume, and Sparkler found the correct page.

And there it was—a short article on foxes, with pictures. They were amazed that they’d thought of a subject and it was already right here in this book! Ranger took the book, sat down, and read about the eating habits of foxes (The World Book Encyclopedia is written for students so even an 8-year-old can read it).

I suggested, “Let’s photocopy the article.”

Ranger asked, “What’s a photocopy?”

Kids these days just have no idea of the struggle we endured.

It wasn’t just Sparkler and Ranger who were excited about their new discovery. I myself remembered a life long ago, before kids, when I used to read encyclopedias and dictionaries for fun. So one morning during the holidays, I went to the library alone. I pulled out a reference book and sat down at a table. For two hours, I immersed myself in a world of information. When I finally left, it was with a promise to return.

Since that morning, Sparkler has asked to return to the library to “do some research.” She’s learned how to find books on shelves, ask librarians questions, and use the online catalog. (One day, when I think my children are strong enough to bear it, I’ll tell them about the Card Catalog.)

As much I enjoy the fact that I can look up anything on the Internet, it doesn’t replace the heft of books in my hand, the scent of paper and ink, or the discovery of new and surprising information with each turn of the page. I guess Sparkler had a point about Google on paper. But let’s be honest. A boy detective named “Google Brown”, who can pull up 10,000 possible solutions in a moment, just doesn’t have the same charm as “Encyclopedia Brown,” who takes a little longer but always comes up with the right answer.


Photo Credit: Graphic design by Anna Soltis.