David Bell: What We’ve Lost With The Demise Of Print Encyclopedias | The New Republic

Link: David Bell: What We’ve Lost With The Demise Of Print Encyclopedias | The New Republic

But the great paper encyclopedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order. Even if they mostly organized their articles alphabetically, they also sought ways to link the material together thematically—all of it.

It might be argued that mapping out human knowledge has always, necessarily, been a quixotic project, akin to Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies.”

But the ambition mattered. It mattered that one could look at a stack of volumes and say: Here are vast libraries, distilled down into an essence of human knowledge, and organized in a logical order. The books testified to the hope that, ultimately, human beings had at least a measure of control over the overpowering torrents of facts and ideas that they collectively produce. Perhaps no single human being could truly have control—what more quixotic enterprise is there than reading through an encyclopedia from cover to cover? But at least the existence of the books gave us the sense that some points of dry land remained amidst the floods, some fragments shored against our ruins. The disappearance of these grand printed volumes, while inevitable, is yet another depressing sign of just how much we are now adrift in the limitless oceans of information.  

Another “we’re all lost in a sea of information now” screed. Some of us still work at organizing knowledge, or at least the products of knowledge, and it is still no less of a quixotic enterprise than it ever was. Today we just have a much better sense of how absolutely quixotic it is. Nonetheless, the attempt goes on and thus his conclusion is misplaced.