||Look It Up!
by Sandra Martin
FOR THE PAST month or so my family has been consumer-testing the junior Encyclopedia of Canada (Hurtig, five volumes, 2,0 pages, $59.95) until December 25, 1990, $189.95 plus GST after), edited by James Marsh. Whenever a question is raised, somebody inevitably responds with "Look it up." The result has been a great levelling of preconceived notions and assumed general knowledge. "Just what kind of a flower is the fleur de lis anyway?" somebody asked the other day. "It`s a lily, of course," I said confidently, and then, overcome with a gnawing doubt, I backtracked: "Well, I think it`s a lily -- you`d better took it up."
"You`re wrong," I heard, not for the first time. Brandishing volume 2 of the Junior Encyclopedia of Canada (JEC hereafter) under my nose, my eldest child -- "the great corrector," as he is known -- informed me that the fleur-de-lis is not a lily, but an iris. "The confusion," he read, "probably came from the name Fleur-de-la-Lys, given to the yellow iris of Europe, which grows along the banks of the Lys River in France." Well, live and learn.
What that incident, and many similar ones, told me is that a good children`s encyclopedia should be a family resource. The questions that kids ask often expose adult ignorance. Bur there`s more to it than that. Samuel Johnson said that there are two kinds of knowledge: "We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." I want my kids to have the independence and self sufficiency that "looking it up" provides. I want them to he able to answer their own questions. Of course, it doesn`t hurt that in this information-crazy age, a handy encyclopedia takes some of the heat off me as well.
People tend to revere encyclopedias rather than to use them. There they sit on the shelf, shiny, magisterial, and often intimidating. An encyclopedia is a tool, not a monument. It must be easily available for quick consultation or more leisurely browsing and it should be hardy enough to withstand grubby fingers. In my house everybody congregates in the kitchen. Forget expensive modular desks and personal work stations; my kids do their homework at the kitchen table. As a result we keep our general reference books along with our cookbooks in the kitchen. That`s where they are used. And while the cookbooks serve the bottomless needs of youthful stomachs, the reference books, so goes the theory at any rate, serve youthful, inquiring minds.
I used the word consumer-testing in the first sentence of this review deliberately, because I think an encyclopedia is the closest a book ever comes to being a consumer appliance. People invest in encyclopedias in the same way they buy stoves or refrigerators. They are rarely bought on a whim. Instead, people
research, compare, inspect, and often test the "product" in their homes before making a final decision. Inevitably buyers ask the following questions: Is it reliable and up to date? How long will it last before I have to replace it? Will it do the job all by itself? Is it a good value for the money? Those are the questions I asked of the JEC.
Reportedly, Hurtig spent $12.5 million and three years in researching, writing, editing, and printing the new encyclopedia. The five volumes contain 2,000 pages, 4,000 original articles, 3,000 illustrations, 2,000 photographs, and 300 new maps. It is designed for children eight to 15 and is intended as a supplement and support for school curricula. This is an important feature, since increasingly teachers are asking pupils to do projects; and as any parent knows, a kid with a project is a family with a project. The more that parents work outside the home, the more difficult it is to arrange after-school jaunts to the local public library. Will the Hurtig encyclopedia, with its sharply Canadian focus -- one can never forget that the publisher Mel Hurtig is an ardent nationalist -- service all of a schoolchild`s information needs?
That`s the first question. But there is another one. For various reasons we tend to have a lot of reference books around, including several published by Hurtig, and an aging set of the World Book Encyclopedia. (It is only slightly ironic that an American encyclopedia would be labeled "world.") I rejoiced when Mel Hurtig published The Canadian Encyclopedia in 1985. For the first time in my life I had access to a comprehensive, authoritative, and up-to-date set of reference books about my own country. By giving us well-researched and clearly written information about ourselves, the Hurtig encyclopedia did more for national unity than any number of multicultural programs. At the time I thought he and the general editor James Marsh should have been given a special Governor General`s Award in recognition of their service to the general knowledge of ordinary Canadians, and I wrote to Hurtig and told him so. Then in 1988, Hurtig published the second edition of The Canadian Encyclopedia. We became a three-encyclopedia family -although the first-edition Hurtig was quickly transplanted to my husbands office. Does my family need a third Hurtig encyclopedia?
The answers are more complicated than the questions, but in any case, Hurtig does remarkably well. Test the JEC on dinosaurs, for example. The entry is nearly five pages long, with coloured illustrations of the major types and a time chart. By comparison the World Book entry is a bit more than eight pages and has much superior illustrations of particular dinosaurs. However, the JEC entry is much more concise, better organized, and much easier for a child to understand and follow. Emphasis is placed on the kinds of questions children ask: Were dinosaurs warm- or cold-blooded? Why did they become extinct? There is more detail in the World Book, but I could detect nothing missing of any significance in the JEC entry. And in some instances there was more information than in the World Book. For example, the World Book states simply that "Perhaps the world`s richest deposit of dinosaur remains is in the Red Deer River Valley of southern Alberta," while the JEC provides two paragraphs of pertinent information on the discovery and nature of Canadian fossils.
Adults often bandy about concepts that they would be hard pressed to define in simple terms. Far too often they camouflage ignorance behind obfuscating detail. Consequently, with abstract concepts and technology, my rule of thumb is to look for a definition first in a kids` reference. If the explanation is clear enough for children to understand, then it will work for adults too. In this respect, the JEC did not disappoint. For example, what exactly is a computer and what does it do?
The entry begins with a general description indicating that "computers are machines that process information according to instructions which they are able to remember, modify, and carry out" and goes on to say that they are "small, reliable, versatile, powerful, and inexpensive tools." Then there is a cogent and succinct explanation that computers work by reducing all information -- pictures, numbers, sounds, words -- to long strings of the numbers one and zero. The numbers are called bits and a string of eight bits is called a byte. To represent the number one, a circuit is switched on, and a pulse of electricity flows through it. To represent the number zero, a circuit is switched off, and no electricity flows through it.
Simple, isn`t it?
The entry continues by telling us the four main things computers do when handling information and then provides a brief history, beginning with the abacus, and finishes off with sections on the uses of computers, computer-based businesses in Canada, the social impact of computers on issues such as privacy, jobs, and information economy, and then lists related articles and a suggested reading list. Accompanying the entry are sidebars on PAT (the computer software developed at the University of Waterloo for the New Oxford Dictionary that can search the 60- million-word text of the dictionary in less than a minute) and a mini-biography of Calvin Carl Gotlieb, the Toronto-born computer scientist and author of Social Issues in Computing. Illustrations include colour photographs of a computer simulation of a CF-18 military fighter and a series of computer graphics.
The section on Meech Lake, written when the accord was still undecided, neatly sidesteps whether or not it was approved in June, 1990 and concentrates on the terms of the agreement and the main issues in the debate. The section on Confederation sketches in our colonial background, and portrays the political deadlock that fathered the final arrangement. The American (Fenian) threats and economic pressures are outlined along with a synopsis of the opposition to what some called the "botheration scheme" that gives enough details to suggest it was not a simple solution. There are excellent period photographs, and a good list of related articles and suggested readings. The tone is right for kids and the balance suits adults too, by which I mean that the article tells kids what the Confederation movement was all about and yet doesn`t insult the intelligence of the professional student of the subject.
On the contemporary front, the entry on AIDS is bold and brave, explaining precisely how the HIV virus is passed from one person to another, and suggesting that the two best-known ways of avoiding AIDS and slowing its spread are by refraining from sex with people who may be infected and by using condoms. There is no suggestion that abstaining from sex is a third option, which is both realistic and informative. Squeamish parents and teachers should remember that this is an encyclopedia and not a behaviour guide. Also on the contemporary front, there is no reference to the Goods and Services Tax. Either Hurtig knows something the rest of us don`t, or else he has let his political sensibilities override his editorial judgement.
Aside from quibbles of various sizes -- Janet Lunn certainly deserves a separate biography -- I have one serious criticism of the JEC. The maps are woefully inadequate. There is no full-scale map of Canada, an unbelievable oversight in an encyclopedia for any age group. Similarly, the provinces get very short shrift in the cartography department. The poverty of the maps is serious for two reasons. Little kids love looking at them. Surely one of the subliminal purposes of this encyclopedia is to inveigle kids into wanting to learn more about their own country. And one of the easiest ways to draw them into the encyclopedia is through fulldimensional coloured maps. The second problem about the lack of maps is that kids have as much trouble with location as they do with time. How far is Toronto from Montreal? Where is Calgary in relation to Edmonton? These questions and many others are answered by looking at maps.
Having lived with it for a month, I have concluded that we use the JEC almost as a concise dictionary. It is the first place we look, particularly for general knowledge. The adult Hurtig, as we have come to call it, is superb for adult needs, but it is often too specialized and sophisticated for child-generated questions. If I had to choose only one encyclopedia to keep in the house, I would start with this one. At $159.95 it is the best general Canadian reference available for any age. But please, Mr. Hurtig, give us better maps!