Of What Use Is It?

As I look through my old books I tend to focus on the strange reality they present. I have spent hours looking through ‘facts’ of the past. The Earths core is solid, orange peels are a public safety hazard, you should never discuss hobbies at a diner party… these are the light side of my book collection. Segments easily removed from the context they were written and which show a comical contrast to today.

My encyclopedias from the 1920’s are both accurate and inaccurate portrayals of life at that time, these books were written for children and their families to learn about the world, they are intended as a complete view of the world and they include the sexism, racism, and colonial views of the people producing them. There is an assumption that the reader is a white child clear in the text. The images they create are true portrayals of what they wanted life to be at the time, but also show the biases influencing the writing, hinting that there are entire stories and lives that are never mentioned.

I am interested in knowledge. I love learning about the past and the assumptions these books make tells me a lot about the time they were written in, positive or negative.

Old textbooks are evidence of how children of the past were taught. I have met people who grew up reading “the book of knowledge”. We won’t know exactly what teachers were teaching in a classroom at any given time but we can reflect on the curriculum and resources they had access to. My set of encyclopedias was left in an elementary school in Victoria for 98 years, they were printed the year the school opened. I think they were likely used by the teachers.

I also have an additional set of encyclopedias from America in 1926. They are a different edition of the same book and as a result have content which differs slightly from the Canadian set. I have yet to research the difference in society between 1921 and 1926, it is something I plan to study further. Anecdotally I have noticed a trend of the Canadian books relying on colonial ideas, an article on the formation of the earth pauses several times to say that Canada is better than other parts of the world. In contrast the American text has the same article and it does not mention other countries or cultures, instead focusing on the formation of the earth through the lens of science and god. The Canadian book doesn’t mention god.

I feel that currently I have skimmed these books. I have not read all 18 volumes but I have looked at particular articles in depth. I plan to continue exploring the information and ideas of these books, as I recognize patterns and themes I will be able to focus my studying further.




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