Closing the book on Britannica

With updated information available instantly online, the era of the encyclopedia is over

March 19, 2012|Susan Reimer

In 1797, the Shaw of Persia received a set of Encyclopedia Britannica to celebrate his elevation. He read it in its entirety — it was shorter then — and in celebration of this accomplishment, he added "Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopedia Britannica" to his list of titles.

I know this because I read it in Wikipedia.

It was included in the entry about the Britannica, which had, of course, just been updated to reflect the fact that it would no longer be available in printed form after 244 years and would complete its migration to the Internet.

The important distinction to be made here is that I didn't discover this fact while browsing through the articles in the volume covering people, places and things that begin with "s" for shah (the contemporary form of "shaw") or "p" for Persia.

That was the joy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The browsing. You went looking for something in particular, and after you found it your eyes might drift over another topic on the page, or you might flip a couple of pages, reading random articles about random stuff.

You can move through information on the Web, too, of course — by following hyperlinks. But that is a more directed, more constrained kind of browsing. It is not nearly as serendipitous as hopscotching through a volume of the encyclopedia and finding something that catches your imagination.

The Britannica was read cover to cover by a number of notable figures, including George Bernard Shaw and A.J. Jacobs, who wrote a best-selling book about what he called "a stunt." But it made accidental experts of the rest of us, who turned those thin, silky pages, driven by curiosity.

The encyclopedia began as three cross-referenced volumes compiled in 1768 by a couple of Scotsmen. Today it is 32 volumes, plus year books that update information. It cost about $1,500 and it weighs something like 120 pounds.

Nobody is buying the Encyclopedia Britannica anymore. In fact, you probably couldn't give yours away.

In 2010, 12,000 sets were produced, and there are 3,500 left, unsold, in a warehouse in Chicago. At its peak, in 1990, 120,000 sets were sold.

That was about the time this helicopter parent was first in line to purchase Encarta, a full-color, multimedia research tool that could be searched on our home computer, so I guess I had a hand in the demise of the Britannica. (In a kind of rough justice, Encarta is extinct now, too.)

Part of the its authority came from the fact that entries were often authored by those famous in the field being discussed. Arnold Palmer wrote the entry about the Masters golf tournament. Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Henry Ford and heart surgeon Michael DeBakey were authors, too. Even Leon Trotsky wrote for the encyclopedia.

Wikipedia, in contrast, has more than 4 million articles written by tens of thousands of writers in what it likes to describe as one continuous editorial conference. Though one study found that the Britannica and Wikipedia had an equal number of mistakes per entry (three or four), Wikipedia seems more vulnerable to the charge that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Wikipedia, begun 11 years ago with the purpose of making all information available to all people, has the advantage of immediate updates, when countries change leaders or planets are dismissed from the solar system. The publishers would wait 25 years or more before issuing a new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica because it was so expensive.

My family didn't have one. The monthly installment payments were far too costly. But my mother was determined to make the same statement about learning made by the families who had the Britannica on their bookshelves, and she purchased a volume of Funk & Wagnall's at the grocery store for a few dollars every month.

I used it to do my schoolwork, of course. Encyclopedias are the reason why every report a kid ever wrote in that era had such a strong resemblance to an entry found there. But I would also flip through its pages and read entries that caught my eye, about the Romanovs of Russia or Cleopatra or the Great Wall, lost for a while in learning.

That is what we will miss now, I think, with the migration of so much to the Internet – books, magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias.

It heralds the death of the printed page, and the end of turning it.

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