The Demise of Encyclopædia Britannica
I’ve been caught up in e-books for so long that I failed to mark the exact date when the announcement came out about the end of the print version of Encyclopædia Britannica. This was a truly sad moment for me, not because I read the current edition that sits in our reference area in the library, but because of the literary history of those who contributed to this product in the past. If it were not for Britannica, I would not be the librarian I am today! Let me explain…. I started back to school in 1983, after the birth of my third son. I already had one master’s degree in colonial American history and couldn’t find a job. I was working as a library aide at the time, so I figured that I’d give Library Science a try and see if I wanted to invest my precious time and money into getting yet another graduate degree. The first class I took was General Reference, and the very first assignment was on comparing various encyclopedias. My professor must have seen something in me, because he looked me in the eye and asked if I was up for a challenge. I replied that I was, thinking I might have to compare a specialized set of books rather than the standard World Book and Grolier’s like the other students were doing. Dr. K. asked me to compare the current edition of Britannica to the 9th Edition as well as the 11th Edition. I had no idea which edition was current, but I agreed to give it a try.
It turned out that the most recent was the 15th editon, which I could find at any local library. The 9th and 11th, however, were a different story. I finally located them in the stacks of the graduate library where I was taking my classes. It was love at first sight! The 9th Edition, published in 1889 was known as the Scholar’s Edition for good reason. The articles were authored by men I had studied in my undergrad classes in literature, philosophy and history. They were beautifully written and caught the spirit and voice of Victorian England. The 11th Edition was similiar, but with shorter and easier to understand entries. This was the last edition written prior to The Great War, the edition I personally call the last one from the Age of Innocence. My assignment was supposed to be several pages long, but mine turned into ten. I was totally caught up in the topic and knew that I was destined to be a research librarian. I was hooked, to put it mildly – and my professor knew it. I “aced” the class and signed up for every class he taught, hoping I’d have other assignments like that one. By the time I completed my degree, I had been assigned a number of interesting projects, but none ever lived up to that first encounter with Britannica.
Thus, when I read about the end of this venerable tradition of putting information into print at Britannica, I was sad for myself as well as those who will never be able to enjoy the challenge and joy of discovering the heritage of these volumes. While it will continue online, I suspect it will never be the same and will be poorly used in comparison to Wikipedia.
By the way, Wikipedia has just about the only history of Britannica I could find – and I thought it to be accurate and very complete. What irony !!