Thursday, March 29, 2012

Encyclopaedia Britannica's Pages Go The Way Of All Flesh

by Dick Mac

I love reference material.

As a boy, I loved going to the library and reading the encyclopedia and ancient newspapers on microfiche.

In my twenties, I managed to get a job and an income, and I purchased the black leather-bound edition of the 1990 Encyclopaedia Britannica. I loved owning those books. They felt so important, so vital, so alive.

I loved opening the Propaedia, finding a topic, and reading through the volumes for every article related to that topic.

My journey to Britannica was not a straight line from thought to purchase. I knew there were multiple publishers releasing encyclopedia, but I knew nothing about what made them different from each other.

I initially sought out the Americana. I knew Britannica was one of, if not the best, and I had made the assumption that the Americana was the United States, or new world, version of that famous and prestigious publication.

It wasn't easy to get information about Americana. What information I did obtain was scant and sort of used-car-salesman-like. I was not impressed. I did learn that it was not affiliated with Britannica, which surprised me.

I knew about World Book, and learned (correctly or incorrectly) that it was the best-selling English-language encyclopedia. It did not promote itself as being comprehensive, and I was of the opinion that it was for school children.

I found an advertisement in The New Yorker, or The Nation, or one of the publications I read regularly, for Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was sooooo irritated by the spelling, but I did not let that get in the way of my research. I called the number, and was shocked to find out that a salesman could come to my home, show me the volumes, and show me why their product was the best.

The salesman came to my home with multiple salesman suitcases, sat in my living room and started his demonstration. It really felt like a television show where the housewife opens the front door, the salesman tosses a handful of dirt onto her carpet, and explains that his vacuum cleaner can get that dirt up better than any other vacuum cleaner available. He gets to do his demonstration and another happy housewife is the proud new owner of a super-duper-lightweight-state-of-the-art vacuum cleaner.

Well, OK, the Britannica salesman wasn't that aggressive, nor was he that tacky.

One part of demonstration I did not expect was a discussion of the books' physical attributes. He explained binding and stitching and had me feel the leather, opened a volume to the middle, discussed the paper used, the printing method used, held up a single page of the book and then removed his other hand. The book dropped from his hand and was suspended from that single page, in tact. He then shook the book back and forth, up and down and explained that Britannica pages do not rip easily, nor accidentally. That was the only salesman-like part of his pitch.

Most of the time was spent discussing and examining the intellectual property: the articles. He explained that Britannica hired the the top expert in each field to compose the article on that subject. Einstein wrote the article on relativity, Freud wrote the article on psychotherapy, and so on. I don't actually remember if those two experts composed those two articles, but that was the general idea. He also explained that other encyclopedia hired writers and editors to sit there and compose articles - not the experts.

He explained the Propaedia, which flabbergasted me. I had never heard of such a thing and was blown-away that it even existed.

I purchased Britannica that day. It was the black-leather bound edition. It was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II and George H.W. Bush. It was beautiful and perfect in every way.

Less than ten years later, changes in living arrangements made it clear I could not lug this set of books around with me, and they went to my brother's house for his four daughters. I missed it, but was very happy it would be put to use.

My daughter is now eight years old. Before she was born I decided I would buy a new set of Britannica when she entered fourth grade. That will be the 2013-14 school year.

I thought about where we would store them and how I would teach her about them, and show her how to find anything she wanted to know about. It's a pretty exciting plan. I suspect I am just as excited about having Britannica for myself as I am about getting it for her.

Imagine my dread and dismay when I saw this article online: Digital Kills Printed Encyclopaedia Britannica After 244 Years.

In 2013 there will not be a current edition of Britannica for me to purchase for my daughter's use and to display in my home. Those beautiful leather-bound volumes will not be at my fingertips. I won't be able to touch them. It makes me sad.

My daughter is part of a generation that is completely wired via the web. She was four years old the first time she said: "Just go to Google and find it." I don't think she has the same tactile relationship to information that I have. I learn best from a physical page. I like the feel and smell of pages in books. I know I am being parochial, but it's not because I object to electronic media, it's just that I am not used to it.

So, in a couple of years I will subscribe to Britannica online. I'm certain my daughter will benefit greatly from it.

Still, I will miss those books.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Kills its Print Edition


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