Editorial: We Belong Together

Like you (I’m guessing), I felt my soul give a little lurch at the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was getting out of the book business to go online, all the time. Part of my reaction was nostalgia—when I was a child we owned the first four or five volumes of some encyclopedia that my parents had picked up as a supermarket premium, and I would browse them endlessly. As any devotee of the Guinness World Records or the Farmers’ Almanac can tell you, it’s fun to pinball around within the structure a reference book gives you: it has rules so you don’t have to.

But as a librarian, I understand that digital reference sources, done right, have it all over print. The online Britannica is no less authoritative, arguably more so because it is more quickly updated than print. It’s still browsable and inspiring of serendipity: having secured a trial subscription for the purposes of writing this editorial, I’m having trouble keeping myself on task. Wikipedia without shame! Less expensive (given you have the means to access it, which is a big given) than print and more compact—what’s not to like?

Here is the question for children’s book people, though. Does the thought of a kid whizzing his or her way around an electronic reference source give us as much satisfaction as the picture of a kid doing the same thing with a printed book? I thought not. Whether librarian, teacher, publisher, or writer, when we say that at least part of our shared goal is to promote the “love of reading,” what we have always meant is the “love of books.” (Some books.) What will our goal be once books no longer provide our common core?

This is partially a question about e-books. Yes, e-books are books, and libraries want to buy them and enthusiastically promote their circulation to library patrons, who demonstrably want to read them. But publishers complain that they need “friction” to ensure that library borrowing doesn’t take too much of a bite from consumer purchases, and libraries are put into the position of licensing rather than acquiring e-books, just another borrower in the chain. However, this economic tussle is only an early warning sign of the real problem that librarians and (as Stephen Roxburgh argued in the March/April 2012 Horn Book) publishers face: thanks to the leveling power of the internet, electronic literature doesn’t need either one of us, at least as we currently understand our respective missions.

But this is also a question about the independence of readers. In libraries, even those kids who wouldn’t talk to a librarian if their lives depended on it rely far more than they know on the professional expertise provided by the library’s staff, systems, and policies. Readers’ advisory is found as much in the shelving as it is in a friendly chat. When we are reading online, however, we are far more on our own, for good (we can read what we want when we want it) or ill (finding what we want to read can be an adventure beset by false leads, commercial interests, and invasions of privacy).

What can children’s book people become? I reveal my fantasy of what we could make of the future on page 16 of this issue, but in reality what we need to do is to redefine our gatekeeping role. Along with giving up any notion that the only real reading is book reading, like the online Britannica we have to believe in our own expertise and convince others that our knowledge is worth attending to. We’ve spent more than a century dedicated to the idea that some reading is better than other reading, an elitist position we can defend by pointing to decades of excellence in books for youth. Publishers and librarians together, we made that happen. Let us continue to do so.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. My heart lurched at that news, too, Roger. When I was little my dad worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Films – basically educational material for classroom use – and we were awfully proud of his work. He brought home many films for us to watch (and we watched it sometimes melt in an overheated projector!) We even tried to teach our parakeet to repeat EBF’s motto – “Bring the world to the classroom!” (Our parakeet, who was quite bright, never learned to say it – though he could say, very articulately, “Pretty bird.”) We had a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica on our bookshelves and I loved lying on the rug turning a volume’s delicate pages with all their tiny print.. I remember feeling a tremendous disloyalty in middle school when I used the World Book encyclopedia to get shallower but more easily retrievable information for my Social Studies reports.

    Here is one thing that I think online reading of reference material can do better that the print version of information (in addition to the speed with which information can be retrieved and its currency, both of which obviously help): Online material of one kind can link quickly, to interesting sideline sites, which allows kids to spiral deeper and deeper into the material. Kids looking up the Principal Imports and Exports of Portugal (that kind of information constituted about 99% of my Social Studies reports when I was 13) can be pulled by a link into reading about the commercial process of getting salt from the sea along the coastline of Portugal, and thus toward a link to the history of Portugal’s domination of sea trade during the Age of Exploration. Suddenly it’s not just about Import//Exports, but about Ferdinand and Isabella and sailing the ocean blue! All by clicking on those addictive links. If you’re an obsessive reader, as kids who use encyclopedia resources can be, then the world suddenly opens up via the strangest and most unexpected doors. Librarians can be the gatekeepers who show kids how to keep the spiraling under control – and how to choose the most interesting doors.

    But oh, those wonderful, delicate pages of Encyclopedia Britannica – they were almost like onion skin. Turning them carefully added to my sense that information was something to be in awe of. Maybe it’s good that kids now feel it’s friendlier but also more suspect – not just delivered by experts, but delivered by sources that can be measured and judged….? “Don’t believe everything you read online” could never have been said about the Encyclopedia Britannica which might as well have been wearing black robes and provided with a gavel – it was the Judge and Jury of information, which is why in my family we approached them as if they were law books!

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