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An Occasional Post

The Encyclopedia Britannica and Reverend Gary Davis

I grew up before personal computers. Obviously. When I entered high school, my parents bought an Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the best encyclopedia of its time—more trustworthy than World Book, more complete than Compton’s, more thorough than any other. And it was a financial sacrifice for my parents in those years. Though it stayed in their house when I went to college, I picked up the occasional volume during vacations just to read something intriguing.

After my parents died, I didn’t keep the encyclopedia. I knew—as a librarian—that it was outdated. But I have kept something I acquired later: the 11th edition of that same encyclopedia.

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia:
Robert Collison, in Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout The Ages (1966), wrote of the eleventh edition that it "was probably the finest edition of the Britannica ever issued, and it ranks with the Italiana and the Espasa as one of the three greatest encyclopaedias in the world. It was the last edition to be produced almost in its entirety in Britain, and its position in time as a summary of the world's knowledge just before the outbreak of World War I is particularly valuable."

Why am I writing about this? Because I was just playing the guitar, which I’ve started to do again, and I’m kind of amazed—again—at how much things have changed. When I taught myself to play, in my teens, I used a method common to lots of us who were learning: records. This involved a lot of picking up and putting down of needles, sounding out chords, and, if lucky, trading licks with someone who knew more. Learning was hard work, but also great fun. When I got something right, my heart soared.

I lived in the DC suburbs by then, which were not a hothouse for short white girls who loved the blues and traditional music. But even when I was underage, I hung out at the Shamrock bar to see The Country Gentlemen (I lied to my parents: I told them I was at the library. Didn’t they realize that the library wasn’t open until 11 p.m.?).

My friend Dini and I went to Berryville, VA to see Bill Monroe, Mike Seeger, and others. I took a few banjo lessons from the great Eddie Adcock (he signed the inside of my mother’s car). And I went to the Newport folk festivals to see Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, John Hammond, and so many more great musicians.

You can now view the 11th edition online. Similarly, you can see almost all the people whose guitar playing obsessed me on youtube and elsewhere. You (or I) can watch their fingers on the frets, figure out chords, find lyrics and tablature.

Finding an out-of-print book became a piece of cake more than a decade ago. The list I always carried around, which I pulled out whenever I hit a good used bookstore, became obsolete. If I wanted a book, I googled it.

As a writer and as a musician, all of this is a gift immeasurable. Researching online opens the world. Almost every question, from simple to complex, can be tracked down from the comfort of my couch, and I have a ton of fun doing it.

But here’s what I was thinking just now as I lifted my guitar out of the case. Is it just a little too easy? Didn't I love the quest for the obscure and difficult? Wasn’t it a cool challenge to try to find just the right note, the right source, the right information? Your thoughts, please!
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