The Encyclopedia Britannica was part of my childhood. As a bookworm (no doubt I would be called a geek or a nerd today), I could get lost in its millions of facts and figures. My parents (mostly my dad) agreed with the door-to-door salesman that the 30-volume encyclopedia, plus atlas and yearbooks, would be the perfect source of knowledge for the family.
I remember as a 10-year-old being very impressed. We had the world’s most comprehensive source of information, on the bookshelves in the study. We even had to buy new bookshelves to hold it. Thirty doorstops, bound in dark leather, divided into the Micropædia, the Macropædia and the Propædia (which I never really learned to use properly).
They did look impressive, but (and I could never admit this) they were also quite dry, a bit fuddy-duddy. The few illustrations were nowhere near as exciting as the transparent plastic plates in my friend Todd’s World Book encyclopedia. And the complicated structure – the one-volume Propædia had a little bit on everything organized in an “Outline of Knowledge,” the 12-volume Micropædia went into more depth on some issues, and then the 17-volume Macropædia provided incredibly detailed essays on the big issues.
You could bury yourself in the information. My father did, reading through sections almost at random (“Did you know, John, that…?”) But Dad has always been a bit special. He did the same thing with dictionaries.
I was always bemused by the fact that they sent a yearbook, supposedly updating us on everything that had happened over the past year. I couldn’t understand how you were supposed to keep an eye on every update in the yearbooks if you happened to be looking something up in the encyclopedia.
The thought of all the world’s knowledge, collated in one spot (as Britannica successfully portrayed itself to me) stayed with me. That was probably why I was so keen to connect up to the “World Wide Web” in the mid-1990s. I remember logging in over a modem to a text-only bulletin board. It seemed so exciting once again to have access to everything I could ever need to know from the comfort of my home, even if the actual amount of information available was extremely limited back then.
The internet is of course everywhere today. It is rare that I can’t find the answer to a question within minutes. Far faster than I ever could have managed with those old bound tomes. At work, in the forest, even in the archipelago, as long as I have a mobile connection, I can find the answer to just about anything.
But all the same, the news last month that Britannica will no longer be published as printed volumes, only in digital and online formats, made me feel a little sad. Wikipedia, surely one of the most important contributors to the printed encyclopedia’s decline and now the standard reference source, says Britannica sales peaked in 1990 with 120,000 sets, while only 12,000 copies of the 2010 version were printed and only 8,000 sold.
The digital version will no doubt be easier to use, more practical, easier to carry around. But it won’t have the romance, the gravitas of those doorstops. My dad, who turns 80 next year, still has them, on the same bookshelves. But he doesn’t get the yearbook any more. He has the internet instead.