15 March 2012

The Encyclopaedia Britannica is dead, long live the Encyclopedia!

When I heard that the multi-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica would cease publishing on paper, I knew I’d have to write the inevitable eulogy. Or something approaching it.

Already you can read paeans to the demise on CNN. “It’s like losing a friend,” one librarian said, even though she also admitted “it can’t keep up” with the changing world, since it’s published only biannually.

I knew this day was coming. I haven’t touched my copy of the Columbia Encyclopedia in years. I haven’t spun the one volume Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged on its wooden stand – haven’t spun that baby in I can’t remember how long, except to bump into it or dust it once in a while.

At the moment it’s sitting in the corner, open to pages 1098 and 1099, left stage to Leishmania.

Leishmania: Noun. Any parasitic flagellate protozoan of the genus Leishmania, occurring in vertebrates in an oval or spherical, nonflagellate form, and in invertebrates in an elongated, flagellated form. Neologism, 1903, named after William Boog Leishman, who lived 1865-1926, a Scottish bacteriologist; see leishmanial, leishmanic, leishmanioid.

That’s the kind of life-changing, useless information I’ve always loved in dictionaries and encyclopedias. I grew up leafing through these books, and any number of high school papers came almost word-for-word out of these things, don’t tell the teacher.

As a kid I would browse the Columbia Encyclopedia, following the careers of a multitude of James and Henrys. Prince or scoundrel, the entries connected to other fascinating paragraphs, educating and entertaining me royally. I spent pleasant hours with that book, in the warm sunshine and bright windows of memory, traveling across acres of tiny print.

You can do that today, online. It’s called web surfing, not encyclopedia reading, but it’s very much the same thing. You waste time, you learn a lot, and never know when it may become useful.

So, to confirm how things are now, I looked up Leishmania on www.dictionary.com

To my utter bemusement, in less than a second I was staring at the very same definition, right down to Professor Leishman himself, life dates and flagellates and all.  Would anyone like to buy my dusty dictionary stand along with the dictionary that has rested on it since 1966?

The Britannica-ites themselves are finding it rather easy to say goodbye to 244 years of print. The president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., said in an interview, "Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it's much more expansive and it has multimedia."

User-sourced online Wikipedia has replaced much of what the Britannica once provided – an authoritative and constantly revised window into the factual world. Wikipedia is a creature of its times, reflecting the cultural mores and science of our day, changing as fast as we change. The Britannica does this online as well, just a bit more slowly, and perhaps more authoritatively.

The Britannica we’re talking about began in 1768, in Edinburgh, Scotland, when an independent bookseller (the only kind of bookseller that existed in those faraway days) and a copperplate engraver collaborated on the first edition.

It started as a collection of articles, sold by subscription, when bound running to three volumes. Over the years it grew to 32 volumes, requiring ever larger sets of bookshelves. With the 11th edition in 1911 “articles were shortened and simplified” to appeal more to American readers, and make it easier for the encyclopedia salesmen to sell the darn thing.

Interesting fact: The first Encyclopaedia Britannica “also featured 160 beautiful illustrations... shocking to some readers, such as the three pages depicting female pelvises and fetuses in the midwifery article; King George III commanded that these pages be ripped from every copy.”

I garnered all this online. That should tell you all you need to know about the print editions of theEncyclopaedia Britannica.


CNN’s excellent article on the subject...  The NY Times...  Wikipedia...


John Bear said...

We had a wonderful Britannica experience in Mendocino. In the mid 70s, we decided to buy one for the children (and me). I wrote to Britannica. They said we could only buy one from a door-to-door salesman, and their rep for the coast came through every three months; we'd have to wait. Eventually a nice young man showed up. He started to set up his presentation easel. Never mind, we said, we want to buy one. I have to do the presentation, he said. It is required. Then talk fast, we said. He did, and we bought it. All was well. Then, about two years later, the same young man came to the door. He said that he was no longer selling EB, and to undo all that marketing karma, he was visiting every customer and offering to do four hours of work. We loved that, and set him to work chopping wood. He did a prodigious amount, and drove on. Six months later we got a postcard; he was working on a fishing boat in Alaska and was very happy.

John Bear said...

In the matter of EM (and comparable) sitting untouched, a story. Long ago, Marina and I were consultants to Encyclopedia Britannica, for the purpose of helping them develop a competitor to their rival's Childbook. One day we were rewarded by having a private lunch ewith Mortimer Adler, whose Great Books of the Western World had been published by EB. Adler spent a good deal of time ranting (pleasantly) about the fact that the success of his magnum opus depended on pushy door-to-door salespeople. He told us this story: a dozen sets of Great Books were made up with the fancy leather binding, but all blank pages, for display at trade shows, etc. By some dreadful mistake, ten of them were actually sent out to people who had bought the Great Books from a door-to-door salesperson (complete with the mahogany bookcase) . . . and, he said, six of them were never returned!

Tony said...

John... both of those stories are absolutely delightful... thank you! Tony

John Bear said...

One more, then. Your Random House Dictionary sitting there open to page 1098 brings back a special memory. My Uncle Mame (he had the name first!) was a candy salesman and semi-pro magician. He wowed the 8-year-old me with this trick. Take any 3-digit number where the first and third digits are different and at least 2 numbers apart . . . like 327. Reverse the number (723) and subtract the smaller from the larger (723 - 327 = 396. Reverse that number, and add it to that number (396 + 693 = 1,089). Then, he said, go to that page in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary on the rotating stand. On page 1,089 was a message from him to me. The amazing thing here -- I confess I still don't understand it -- is that no matter what number you start with, you always come out with 1,089.

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