Farewell Britannica – End of Empire

In an inevitable yet still somewhat shocking move, Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that they will no longer be issuing their encyclopedia in book form.

I don’t have any fond memories of leafing through the actual Britannica as a child – our shelves were inhabited by the more prosaic World Book Encyclopedia…

… and, even better, the Childcraft library…

Reference volumes like these were aimed even more at parents than children. “Help your childrens’ minds grow, too, this summer”, as the advertisement above rather ungrammatically advises. Encyclopedia sets filled living room shelves quite handsomely, but they also filled information gaps in family book collections the world over. It seems incredible now, but there was a time when, if the public library was closed, a kid without encyclopedias had nowhere to turn when a school report was due the next day! Oh, offline world, how ever did we cope?!

Volumes A to Z always came to the rescue, calling out from dusty shelves, “We’ll help you with your homework! Everything you need is right here… with pictures!”

School librarians may well be cheering the shift - how many miles of shelf space can be freed up by going online?

Of course the Britannica decision was inevitable. In a fast-paced world, a reference volume is out-of-date the minute it is printed. Maps change, technology zooms ahead, scientific theories wobble, crash and burn. It’s probably a better use of Britannica’s time and energy to work at making their internet presence rock-solid. (Would clinging to the anvil of a $1900 book collection that nobody buys eventually sink the brand?) We desperately need to maintain a few realms of reputable, carefully researched and scrupulously edited information in the sea of shifting facts, opinion and gossip we call the internet.

So it had to happen. But we can still mourn the passing. Back in the days when there really was nothing on tv (on either channel), and there were no DVDs to turn to (or videotapes… or laserdiscs!), kids like me, bored out of our little minds, might actually reach for a book to flip through. The Childcraft in particular was extremely browse-friendly. You might not reach for World Book volume “G” for recreational reading, but something called “Life Around Us” or “Stories and Fables” or “How Things Work” might catch your interest. (“Places to Know” and “People to Know” were my favourites.)

So not having general knowledge books on the shelves is a sad thing in itself. It’s also worrying. Online reference materials are of course inaccessible to those without a computer. Beleaguered libraries can’t take up all the slack here – have you ever tried to book time on a computer at a library branch? You’ve got to get in line with everyone who wants to watch youtube videos or check facebook. And the old encyclopedias never had a time limit on them.

The disappearance of encyclopedic volumage may also draw the curtain on our very fantasies of what a home library could/should be…

The library at Dunham Massey, Cheshire, England.

( Drool, drool. For more library porn go here! You’re welcome.)

Back to reality… I believe that, even with high-speed internet access, it is desirable to have at least a few nonfiction reference volumes cluttering up the home. It will be a cold day in hell before I ditch my dictionaries (as heavy as they will be to move this summer).

And there is nothing like a quiet, undistracted look through a book to allow a child to actually settle in to thinking. Pictures draw them in, certainly. I remember, besides the Childcraft, a book which I looked through obsessively, and which actually gave me a simple grounding in world events without my even realizing it:

My knowledge of the world, circa 1973.

In the beginning of the modern image-drenched age, it was absolutely enthralling to stare at those photos and get drawn into the stories behind them… the world wars, Korea and Vietnam, the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement… Naturally it was an American-centric view of life (or should I say Life™), but it was a jumping-off point for further reading and, eventually, a degree in history.

For my own home library, to lure my daughter to the bookshelves, I’ve got art books for starters. I’m also very fond of the DK series of books, with their arresting visuals and bite-sized facts, although to buy one on every single topic would cost the moon. (Or Mars.) We tend to rely on the library for these.

As she gets older, maybe we’ll look to Britannica online, which hopefully will be less expensive than it looks to be right now… (By subscription: over $100 for the first year, and despite hunting around the website I cannot find out what renewal might cost after that).

Sigh. Still not the same as that long row of identical soldiers, standing at attention on the shelf, ready to shake off the dust and vanquish that last-minute report on electricity…


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Steve Winn
    Sep 28, 2012 @ 00:48:04

    there is nothing in comparison to what a person can actually touch, hold, look through the pages of, if it is a very old encyclopedia. I have a set of old Comptons, which are worth very little, even the oldest 1923 editions, mine are 1949. Real existing comprehending of history up to the 2oth century of accurate, not lies such as from closed societies, such as Communism, need to exist for those in the future. They never knew the truth of the world, in such countries as Russia, dictatorships all over the world over the last 300 years. Only those in USA, England have the real truth


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