Goodbye Encyclopedia Britannica

Observatory, Reading & Writing

So, the paper version of the EB has reached an end. after 244 years, dozens of editions and more than 7 million sets sold, no new editions will be put to paper. The 32 volumes of the 2010 installment were the last. Future editions will live exclusively online. Wikipedia English has 3.9m articles. The Britannica has about 120,000. Wikipedia is free. The DVD Britannica, which includes two dictionaries and a thesaurus, costs $30 on Amazon and carries a hefty subscription fee for use and updates.

It was often controversial. US critics hated what they perceived to be its British bias, and there was much in the books that felt old-fashioned and out of touch. When I decided to buy a set in the 1980s, a man called around with an easel, which he proceeded to set up in the living room. Then he got out presentation boards and a pointing stick.
‘What’s that for?’ I asked.
‘I have to give you a presentation about the benefits of owning the books,’ he explained.
‘But I already know I want them.’
‘I still have to do it, then you have to fill in a questionnaire about my performance.’
So I listened to him explain, hilariously, what a family heirloom I would be leaving to my grandchildren.
When I told him, in the most delicate way imaginable, that I would not be having grandchildren, he checked his notes. ‘We don’t seem to cover that situation,’ he said. ‘It’s assumed that’s why people buy the Britannica, as an heirloom.’ He moved swiftly on. ‘Now we have to make what many regard as the biggest decision.’
‘What’s that?’
‘The finish. Faux-leather, plastic or leather with gold trim.’

As it turned out, I hardly ever used them, but I did like to browse them for oddities. I much preferred my set of ten blue cardboard-bound volumes from the 1930s entitled the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedia. These volumes included such fascinating and useful items as:
How To Stalk A Deer
Keeping Guinea-Pigs As Pets
The History Of Tunnelling
Proficiency Badges Of The Boy Scouts
The Wonderful World Of The Worm
Crocheting A Pot-Holder For Empire Day
Fun And Amusement With Stops And Commas
How To cultivate A Monastery Garden
The Right Way To Slide
The Cheerful Black Folk Of Africa
And ‘What is wrong with this picture?’
(Answer: ‘The gentleman has buttoned his waistcoat incorrectly.’)

In an article on ‘How To Build A British House’, the end photograph showed a man standing on his roof behind crenellations, beneath a fluttering Union Jack, clenching a pipe stem between his teeth, staring pompously into the middle distance. Another article entitled ‘Things To See In London’ included The Inigo Jones Watergate, Adelphi (moved and forgotten) The Crystal Palace (moved and burned down) and more obscurely, The W. T. Stead Memorial On The Embankment (Stead was a journalist and spiritualist who survived the sinking of the Titanic). The volumes were fascinating from an anthropological perspective, but also dusty, peculiar and vaguely offensive. I loved them.*

*This list excerpted from ‘Paperboy’.

So, goodbye EB, superseded by the power of crowd sourced knowledge.

7 comments on “Goodbye Encyclopedia Britannica”

  1. Sparro says:

    Children’s Encyclopedia was noted (by my brother and me) for the art pages, coloured in bilious green and usually featuring classical sculptures of naked women….

  2. Nostalgia.Detected says:

    I used to spend hours looking through our copies of the Children’s Encyclopedia. My favourite sections were the piano lessons with help given by the piano fairies.

  3. Gretta says:

    Oh admin, do tell us that you did actually crochet a pot-holder for Empire Day. It will make my day.

    No Britannicas here, but I still have the Pears Junior Encyclopaedia I got as a birthday present in the early 1970s. It remains a thing of wonder, and I refuse to be parted from it.

  4. Gretta says:

    Hmm. Have just noticed that you’ve used the American spelling for encyclopaedia, admin. Trying to correct the perceived British bias?

  5. Marc says:

    Stead died on the Titanic, according to Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Thomas_Stead

  6. Helen Martin says:

    My understanding is that the Encyclopedia Britannica is not in fact owned in Britain but in the U.S. It was inevitable that the encyclopaedia (I like that usage, too) should die. The amount of money spent in our school system to keep up to date was horrendous and we didn’t buy Britannica for the elementaries because it was too difficult for them to use. Any printed encyclopaedia is out of date before it’s printed so you’re always trying to catch up. I have most of a 1906 encyclopaedia which tells me the basics of many things but my latest use of it was as a weight on a binding I’d just finished.

  7. John says:

    Wow, where have I been? Did the EncycloPEDIA Britannica really get that fluffy and esoteric in recent years? “The Right Way to Slide?” Is that for safety in playing baseball or the proper etiquette at a children’s playground?

    We had a set that my parents must’ve purchased in the early 1950s. I loved it – especially the articles on the old movies with all those glorious black and white still photos. I also remember studiously examining the full color plates of the two human anatomy figures and peeling back the transparencies to reveal the circulatory system, the inner organs and finally the skeletons. Such a morbid boy I was.

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