With the news last week that the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be offered in print, OCLC Research offers up a range of memories. We encourage you to share yours as well!
I grew up with three sets of encyclopedias at home: the Golden encyclopedia which Mom bought one by one at the grocery and was geared for the very young; the World Book encyclopedia – red covers and that got heavy use in elementary school and junior high; and the Encyclopedia Britannica that Dad paid for “on time” – it came with its own bookcase – and that was used by all of us in conjunction with the World Book since it had much richer detail and fuller coverage of topics and people. (My brother Tom never liked reading books but would take a different Britannica volume to bed with him every night and thus acquired a wide knowledge base that he then used to challenge us all on facts. He would have made a great Jeopardy contestant!)
As a child, I was fascinated with the Britannica Yearbooks, which served as an interesting compendium of what happened in the world that year. They also provided a useful lesson, to my budding intellect, that information is far from stable — it must constantly change to adapt to both the changing world and our changing perceptions of it. Thus the whole Yearbook concept could be seen as the harbinger of Britannica’s doom, in that a constantly changing web resource is more useful as a “product.” But I also mourn it’s passing in that with a constantly changing resource it is much more difficult to get a sense of how the world and our perceptions of it have changed in a year.
One of my prized personal possessions is the 1911 edition of the Britannica, long considered a required source for reference collections and reference librarians. One needed to ‘inherit’ a set, because they were rarely available from the trade. If a reference collection had 1000 titles, the 1911 would be among them.
The type for the 1911 was composed (set) by a women’s typographical union in Edinburgh. The type was is impossibly small, contributing to the knee-jerk assumption that women made great compositors because they had little hands. The women’s union undercut the wages in the (all-male) Stationers’ Company in London, who considered them scabs. This is part of a long story about women in the printing trades.
As an aside, it is delightful to consult a reference source that doesn’t know about the atom bomb, Nietzsche, world wars, etc. A primary source and a reference source all at the same time, instructive for young adults and old folks alike. The pithy articles in the 1911 were authored by illustrious scholars. Many of the entries and their short bibliographies are still considered definitive. Check out the maps!
When I was in my first years of school, my parents purchased a set of WorldBooks (which they still have and sometimes use). WorldBooks were a marvel, and the source of much useful input to exploration, dispute, and school papers. But by the time I reached junior high, and I had encountered the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the lure of the WorldBooks greatly diminished, and the Britannica was and would continue for decades to be my favorite encyclopedia. Each article was so expert, so erudite and so beautifully crafted. My reference services course in graduate school included a rather detailed learning and sorting of various encyclopedias, each with their special advantage. Yet as I began my own work as a reference librarian at a small college, the the Britannica still stood head-and-shoulders above the rest. Even now, from time to time I miss the pleasant experience of pulling the right Britannica volume from the shelf and quickly paging through the thin paper pages to exactly the right bit of information. Alas, poor print Britannica, we knew you well.
When I was in high school, there were two elderly sisters next door who owned a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. Shy as I was, mom would make me go over there unannounced and use their copy for homework assignments rather than walk down to the library. They served milk and cookies and sat there quietly doing needlepoint. I miss them.
News of the impending demise of the print EB immediately spawned lots of nostalgic chat on Facebook as we children of the 50s and 60s who grew up to be librarians fondly recalled the encyclopedia as artifact: spreading volumes all over the floor to work on school reports and gluing in the little update stickers that came with each World Book annual, not to mention the household excitement when the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman first came to call. But their kids? The books (inevitably inherited from parents, not bought by our generation) sit on the shelf untouched while they get the facts for their class projects from the ‘net.
My only memories of the EB and other such comprehensive reference resources are from the library — we didn’t have them at home. I don’t know if this is because I came from a home or more modest means than my colleagues, or because my parents expected me to go to the local public library for such things. I found actually encyclopedias rather dull and dreaded any assignment that required their use, although I did love other types of reference materials — the Guinness Book of World Records was always a favorite, as was the Book of Lists, a short lived publication (which I didn’t know until today was banned by some libraries). I find it hard to be sad about the demise of the print volumes — after all, if you are going to take an encyclopedia to bed, it’s far more convenient indulge your quest for knowledge with a click than to get out from your cozy covers to fetch another volume. And you are less likely to be caught out by out of date information.
My recollections of EB are all from using it at the local library. We didn’t have it at home. We were at the library so often (it was between our school and home) that we didn’t even imagine that you could have a personal copy. The only encyclopedia volumes that ever made it into the house were the ones that got sold one volume per week at the supermarket just like the sets of dishes or cookware that you were supposed to collect a bit at a time. As a consequence our family had only random volumes of the encyclopedia (World Book?), mismatched dishes inadequate to the size of the family and enough nine-inch fry pans that we could have had personal ones if we’d wanted.
Merrilee Proffitt is Senior Manager. She provides community development skills and expert support to institutions within the OCLC Research Library Partnership.