Encyclopedia Britannica: RIP

There was a sad death this week that you may have missed.

The Encyclopedia Britannica — or, if you really want to get huffy about it, the Encyclopædia Britannica — has died. The Britannica will no longer print hardcover editions of the most reliable and beloved reference work in the world. (It’s still online, of course.)

This is sad, but expected. The most recent 32-volume edition of the Britannica cost $1,395, which is a lot to pay for a set of books that most people used as a decorative flourish rather than an actual source of information. Britannica sales have been in decline for years (actual sales of the books accounted for only one per cent of the company’s revenues), so the end of the print version could hardly be a surprise. But it certainly marks the end of an era.

I grew up at a time when information was actually kind of hard to come by. My mom and dad were wise enough to buy us not only a complete Encyclopedia Britannica, but a full set of World Books, too. Having actual reference books in your home was a scholastic lifesaver. No trips to the library to do your Social Studies reports on Brazil (why was it always Brazil?). It was right there, at our fingertips, in our den.

If you can’t imagine having an actual set of books in your home, let me explain. There was no Internet. There was no Wikipedia. Our only source of information to students like me and my 10 siblings were these things called encyclopedias, which consisted of a number of “volumes”, which consisted of hundreds of pieces of “paper” bound together in “book” form.

I know … weird, huh? This is how we got vital information for our school reports, like “Coffee is the primary export of Brazil.”

As I mentioned, we had both the encyclopedia and the World Book. The World Book was kind of an Encyclopedia Britannica For Dummies, and much loved. Our set of World Books was pretty battered and dog-eared from use, while the Encyclopedia Britannica looked, for the most part, untouched. The World Book was like a friendly community college professor who put things in terms you could understand. The Encyclopedia Britannica was the stern university professor who really made you work for your grade. To be honest, I rarely looked at it. Too many words, not enough pictures.

The trouble with the World Book, or the Encyclopedia Britannica for that matter, was that it was old news the minute it was printed. Sure, the information on Julius Caesar would be the same for decades, but major scientific advances would have to wait for another volume — and there never was another volume. They were expensive, so you kept your World Books or Encyclopedia Britannica’s until the pages started to rot. I can’t remember exactly how old our books were, but I think the entry on space travel went only about as far as John Glenn orbiting the earth.

Truly, the era of beefy reference tomes is over. I have a set of the Canadian Encyclopedia, which I haven’t cracked open in years. Looks nice on my bookshelf, though. I also have an Oxford Dictionary of Quotation, a Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, The Penguin Canadian Dictionary, a huge Rand McNally Atlas of the World (with several countries that no longer exist) and The Complete Unexpurgated Scripts of the Original Monty Python TV Series, all basically overtaken by technology (except maybe the Python book).

Is this a bad thing? No, not really. The whole world had instant access to information that used to be difficult to come by, or available mostly to families that could afford reference books. So it’s all good, but it’s also a little sad that a 244-year-old piece of so many lives will cease to exist.