5 new lives for vintage encyclopedias

encyclopedia

encyclopedia

Some of us who grew up in the pre-computer dark ages were lucky enough to have a set of encyclopedias in our homes. And some of us used those encyclopedias as a primitive browser. We would take a volume off the shelves and browse the contents. That’s right, some of us actually read our encyclopedias and studied the photos and drawings.

Golden book encyclopedias
The classic Golden Book Encyclopedia set.

Encyclopedias came in different flavors. Many of us started out with the colorful and endlessly browsable Golden Book Encyclopedia with large print and lavish colored illustrations. After that we moved on to something like World Book or Funk and Wagnalls or Childcraft. Intellectual households went full on Encyclopedia Britannica, which frankly, I always felt needed more pictures. 

Buying an encyclopedia set was no small investment, whether it was the kind that came from a supermarket one volume at a time or the kind that was sold by a salesperson who was able to convince parents that not having an encyclopedia was definitely going to impact their child’s future prospects. The books are beautiful quality, printed on nice coated stock inside fine quality covers with embossing. Those of us who know what those encyclopedias cost and who treated them with the respect that books full of the world’s knowledge deserved–we still look at our encyclopedias with the same amount of respect now as we did when they first came home. We know they are dated, but we still like having them around.

While we may still value our encyclopedias, the world at large does not. More and more encyclopedia sets are finding their way into landfills because few organizations will accept them as donations. It turns out, in the computer age, no one actually wants used vintage encyclopedias to use in the way they were made to be used. Sets can be given away for free on craigslist or freecycling sites, but the simple truth is that despite their pedigree, not many people feel a burning need to have encyclopedias as reference books in the days of Wikipedia.

So what do you do when you are ready to part with an encyclopedia set? As it turns out, clever souls are finding ways to upcycle and/or reinvent encyclopedias as art and as decorative accents. Here are some of my favorites:

book boxes by Shannon Moore
Book boxes by artist Shannon Moore

Artist Shannon Moore greatest incredible display boxes for miniatures form old books and encyclopedias. Her creativity is somewhat breathtaking. Visit her shop, she also makes custom orders.

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encyclopedia bookcase
Artist Jim Rosenau’s Encyclopedia Brittanica bookcase.

Several years ago, Apartment Therapy featured the bookish bookshelves of California artist Jim Rosenau. His Encyclopedia Britannica bookshelf would be an incredible place to showcase a special collection.

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book stool
Bucherhocker (bookstore) by Gabarage Recycling Designs, Vienna

Creative. Part geometry, part engineering, all cool. These small stools constructed from old books would have a more formal look if constructed from encyclopedias. Gabarage gets full credit for making books of all sizes and shapes stack together brilliantly.

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encyclopedia table
Encyclopedia stack table, made to last DIY from Little Things.

A simple stack of encyclopedias with a creative top (serving trays work well) makes a smashing pop up side table. But this tutorial from Little Things gives you the how-to for making an encyclopedia side table that will last.

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stamped books
Books in brown paper wrappers, stamped, by Chloe Moore Photography.

One of the nicest attributes of using encyclopedias as decor is that they are all the same height and depth. The widths may vary, certainly the A volume is going to be larger than Volume D, but the main size conformity is a beautiful thing when filling a bookcase or crafting a tablescape. Chloe Moore Photography simplifies to dramatize with brown paper book covers and spines stamped with messages. Change the covers or messages for fun seasonal displays.

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encyclopedia advertisement
1978 Encyclopaedia Britannica advertisement

As I said at the beginning, your old encyclopedia set may be dated in many ways, but it’s still a great read. The meticulous care that went into crafting illustrations and writing articles holds up. They might not have a touch screen, but they do have the power to engage attention. Is there any better way to practice alphabetizing than looking things up? Some articles may be hilarious framed from today’s perspective, but in that humor lies lessons about our not all that distant past. If you’ve decided to downsize your encyclopedias out of your life, consider asking a someone with school age children if they’d enjoy it.

 

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2 comments

  1. Wonderful article Laurie! I spent many hours reading through our Encyclopedia Brittanica as well as Webster’s dictionary. And I’m sure I learned a thing or two in the process.

  2. What great ideas! I have quite a few very old sets and love how they used the old ones to create such great decor. Thanks for sharing!

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