Of Encyclopedia Britannica and Buggywhips

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I do all of my research online, and increasingly most of my reading.  However, I am one of the children of the expiring age of the book, and therefore it is with sadness that I note this story:

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.

Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books that were once sold door-to-door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, company executives said.

In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

Growing up, I would read encyclopedias for fun, and my favorite by far was the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Much too expensive  for my family’s budget, I spent many hours in our local Carnegie public library in Paris, Illinois, perusing the volumes, being exposed to endless new worlds of knowledge every time I opened the pages of those weighty tomes.    I owe quite an intellectual debt to whatever librarian decided that the expense of those volumes was more than worth it.

Today, I feel like a motorist in the twenties seeing horsedrawn wagons increasingly vanishing from the roads, and remembering many a ride pulled by real horse power.  Sentiment of course cannot stand in the way of technological progress, but those of us who live through such transitions would be less than human if we did not mourn the passing of something that was such a useful servant for such a long time.



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A Baby by any Other Name

    George Orwell, who literally wrote the book on how totalitarian regimes use language to serve evil ends, would have loved


  1. My parents bought a complete set of Brittanica around 1960 or so (before either of us kids were born) and then purchased the Book of the Year supplement faithfully every year from 1961 through about 1988 or 1989. The Books of the Year were actually among my favorites to read as a kid. I would imagine those have fallen by the wayside as well now that everything is available online.

  2. Gone or disappearing like Pan Am, TWA, the Fuller Brush Man, pay and rotary phones, typewriters, stick ball, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, Plymouth, p-shooters, the nuclear family, free air at gas stations and Bonomo Turkish Taffy.

  3. Not only the passing of encyclopedias and buggy whips– but local libraries!
    Our weekly trip to town to the county library is a wonderful memory for me– I took a big stack home each week as did my older sister and my mother– then I read mine and theirs; then we went back again and got some more… The library used to be like church in a way– we had to have different behavior when we went in there. No talking–very respectful of the place and the people. And the checkout experience — having the very kind but very official lady in charge — having my own card to be stamped and recorded, being responsible for these treasures for a week..

  4. I can’t wait for the solar flare that wipes out the internet. If I survive the ensuing crash it will be fun watching folks trying to find printed books reference books with the “content” the desperately need, searching for slide rules, typewriter &c . . .


  5. Helpdesk calling video – so funny – & the manual. Memories of Wordprocessing revolution and, um, filing … or today 3/14/12 with so much capability on my lap and I can’t find my toolbars that got lost in an update, not even with online ‘manual’.
    Joe Green: Carbon copies, IBM Selectric, TV antennas, no plastic, and perking pots of coffee, doctors making house calls, bank books.
    Our neighbors had the beautiful Encyclopedia Britannica. We had Funk & Wagnalls and Lincoln Library, still good reading, but Brittanica was deep with great illustrations. Sort of like A students v. B students. I worry about ‘what if’ this untouchable information highway gets closed down. Maybe I’ll finally get to find work as a scribe.

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