Earlier this month, the company that produces the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it would cease publication of its print edition. The very idea seems incredible. I have vivid memories of the thirty-odd volumes sitting on the shelf of my school library, just goading me into doing some actual research and study. For students of my era, the macro and micro sections of Britannica represented the zenith of ready research access. To learn about a topic, all you had to do was open the appropriate alphabetized book to the right page, close that book, open the related alphabetized book from the other section of the multi-volume set, and read. What could be simpler.
Well, the World Book Encyclopedia, for one. The truth is, The Encyclopedia Britannica was just too scholarly for the average grade school student. Let’s say you were doing a report on the great state of Montana. You could have opened the World Book and read the dozen or so pages arranged in neat sections. Or you could have read the same article in Britannica, with its erudite verbosity that extended for perhaps hundreds of pages. Of course, a perforated section on the 75th page of the article could be torn off and used as a voucher for a flight to the Montana Visitor’s Center in Helena, justifying the high cost of the books. But it was much to much for a fifth grader writing a report the night before it was due.
High school and college students might have found Britannica useful, but by that point, their teachers were demanding “real” sources. Today, “real” sources means Wikipedia. And so Britannica floundered. It’s really too bad, too, not because there aren’t good replacement sources available in printed or electronic form. Any serious researcher can find primary sources—even online for free—that are better by far than anything in any encyclopedia series. And the departing Britannica set is still available for online lookups through the company’s web site. What has been lost is the opportunity to see at a glance whether your kid is actually studying. A youngster pouring over a stack of big books provides at least a hint that work is being done. But how is a middle-aged adult supposed to figure out whether that keyboard time is educational or not. “Yes, Dad, I’m studying! Can you close the door to my room?” Britannica, I will miss you.
[Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license]