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Non-Fiction Blog

New thinkers, mavericks and mavens

The Encyclopaedia Britannica 1768-2012


Dedicated by Permission to His Majesty George the Fifth, King of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, and to William Howard Taft, President of the United States of America.
- The dedication included in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.


Normally when my day starts off on the wrong foot it’s because they decided to play "Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks on the radio.  March 14th was different.  On that day I woke up to the news that the Encyclopaedia Britannica has ceased production.

It seems that my youth is slowly disappearing. I don’t mean that I’m disappointed or depressed that I’m growing older, but the things I associated with my younger years are suddenly ceasing to be.  It started a couple of years ago when Supergrass broke up, and then a few weeks ago we learned of the passing of Jan Berenstain, whose books brought back fond memories for some many people.

And now this.

My schooling was mostly done in the pre-internet era. Sure there were a handful of people who had a dial up connection, but no one was really online.  While you wouldn’t know it based on my current arsenal of technology, I didn’t have a computer until I was 18 or 19. When you needed hard facts, the Encyclopedia Britannica was your best friend. You’d track down the correct volume and painstakingly take notes, being careful not to write everything down word for word (lest you be called out for plagiarism).  My entire school career relied so much on it that there were times that it would appear multiple times in a bibliography.

When I was a kid I wanted my own set. I could probably dig up some reasons why I wanted one, but in all honesty they were just kind of awesome.  No one I knew owned a set, they weren't just books; they were different, special. They were holy relics of learning. You could look and read, but they were never to leave the sanctity of the library. And I tried to take them home; the librarians, while sympathetic, didn’t seem to grasp how important my project on turtles was.  They symbolised the ultimate source of learning, everything you could ever hope to know, and then some.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica for the longest time billed itself as the “Sum of All Human Knowledge”, and while that was a bit of an exaggeration, it seemed to be close.  In his book, The Know-It-All, author, AJ Jacobs, decided to read the encyclopedia in its entirety for the sole purpose of being the “smartest person in the world."

It’s not that the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of business, the fact is times are changing and they’ve decided to go digital.  Aside from the aesthetic value, there is no reason for 32 hard-bound volumes when the knowledge can be contained digitally for a fraction of the size.  

Unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, which was written about in Simon Winchester’s book The Professor and the Madman, there isn’t a great deal available written about the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  My guess is that the encyclopedia itself will have a stunning entry about the history written inside. The Britannica will still exist online, and will be updated much faster, the average time between editions was 25 years, the 15th edition was released in 1984 (although there were periodic updates, currently the remaining copies had a partial update in 2010).

If like me you are mourning the fact that it is going digital, there will still be a few physical artifacts based on it.  Time Magazine’s yearly almanac is currently being sourced from the Britannica which is some minor consolation.

I had gone to YouTube to attempt to find a video of talking about making the move to digital. While I was able to find one, I also found a film about helicopters that was produced by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in my opinion it was much more enjoyable.  Enjoy.

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