The Universal Encyclopedia
By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions
All the dishes were washed and put away, and the dining room table was cleared for me to do my homework. That night, it was a report on clocks. I walked down the long hall from the dining room to the foyer where our set of 1936 leather bound Encyclopedia Britannica’s rested in their own mahogany bookshelf, adorned with a stripe of ebony wood on the perimeter.
At approximately the same time I was doing those reports and pulling out the Volume that said “Ca-Cl,” a science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov was imagining a world where there would be a Universal Encyclopedia, with unprecedented amounts of knowledge available to all.
The Universal Encyclopedia has arrived. After 224 years, the Britannica stopped publication in 2012, and if you have a set in your house, it is more of a collector’s item than a reference source.
Do you mourn its demise? Sometimes I do, but mostly I am overwhelmed with gratitude, (when I’m not just overwhelmed) by the availability of research material online that is available to all of us. Not just text, but films, and audio recordings and virtual tours of museums.
As a personal historian, I can use this Universal Encyclopedia to access the broader historical context that will bring my client’s story to life. An African American client, whose family migrated to Detroit in the 1930’s, can have a soundtrack on their video biography that includes part of a field recording from the Library of Congress’ Alan Lomax archives, recorded in 1938. CLICK HERE to listen to a blues song about Joe Louis, heavyweight champion and hero to African Americans of the time (best audio starts at 1:04)
And suppose one of my subjects has a history in Massachusetts which stretches back to Colonial times and is connected to the Adams family? With ONE CLICK I can go to the “volume” of letters from John to Abigail Adams, digitized online at the Mass Historical Society and give texture to the story:
Whether you are looking at the Adams collection, searching for Civil War pension records, or viewing old films on the Library of Congress website, the Universal Encyclopedia transports you to other worlds and in a way that I never would have conceived when I opened that “Ca-Cl” volume to do my homework.
Sometimes it’ still necessary to go to libraries, museums, and historic homes to get the information you need, but isn’t it thrilling that the vision that of science fiction half a century ago is now a reality?
What are your favorite online historical resources? Please share with a comment below!