When I was a kid my dad’s answer to questions he didn’t know the answer to was either: get the atlas, or call the library.
The atlas was The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas, which we’d open on the kitchen table, the two of us elbow to elbow, turning pages not only of maps and places but a double page spread of gemstones, the solar system, constellations, migratory routes of birds, the spread of mammals across continents, the evolution of man across those same continents; it had charts called What the World is Eating, Religions of the World, Patterns of Climate, Life in the Sea, The Vertical Distribution of Clouds, showed the distance between cities and countries, how hot, how cold, how wet, here or there, pages and pages of answers to every question anyone could possibly come up with. We easily spent hours forgetting what my original question was.
That said, it wasn’t infallible. For instance, neither my dad nor the atlas knew if I really had to make THIRTY copies of the chain letter I’d been sent. Could I not just make two or three, I asked. He didn’t know. The atlas didn’t know. Call the library! he said. And I did. And they (am I imagining a stunned pause at their end) answered. Yes, they said, they were pretty sure I could make just a few copies and not be struck down with a plague of locusts. I still feel a certain relief and gratitude for that (official library) advice, not to mention a sense of lifelong preparedness against a threat of locusts.
I still rely on them.
And I still have the atlas, which still conjures up a special kind of wonder.