The Encyclopedia Brittanica has announced that, after 244 years, it will no longer print its multi-volume edition. Its president says that sales of the print edition have dwindled to negligible levels over the past few years because people prefer to get their encyclopedia information electronically. The decision leaves World Book as the only publisher of a print encyclopedia.
Things have changed since my youth, when every house seemed to have an encyclopedia and door-to-door salesmen peddled them. Their pitch targeted core parental guilt: yes, encyclopedias are expensive, but you should have one to help your kids in school and prepare them for college. And having one was handy. If you are over 35, you likely used a print encyclopedia to prepare countless now-forgotten school reports.
Some families were Encyclopedia Brittanica families; others — like ours — had World Book. I’m not sure there was much of a difference, but the Encyclopedia Brittanica was older, more established, and had an aura of scholarly British snootiness. The World Book, on the other hand, was supposed to cover more popular subjects, be more accessible, and have more maps and illustrations.
I know we’ve moved into the digital age, but I still think the disappearance of print encyclopedias from the family home is a loss. There was something solid and reassuring about having that long row of off-white World Books on the bookshelf, carefully arranged in alphabetical order, and knowing that someone had decided that the sum of human knowledge could be reasonably reduced to those 30 or so volumes. On-line and CD versions of encyclopedias also don’t allow for the kind of random browsing you can do with a print encyclopedia. I remember picking out a World Book volume at random and thumbing through it, looking at pictures and colorful maps and skipping from Helium to Hitler to Hittites to Hungary and then on to some other H-related topic. I don’t know if you can do that with the on-line version, but I’m confident it just isn’t the same without that weighty book in your hands.