Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2012 Issue

Britannica Closes Down 244-Year-Old Printed Encyclopedia

Britannicachange

Encyclopedia Britannica – a changing of the guard.

An institution in print is coming to an end after a long and storied career. It is a time for mild nostalgia, but not really one for sorrow. The Encyclopedia Britannica, long a dominant presence on library shelves everywhere, will live on as it should – a large, though no longer physical space-hog of a presence, on computers at home and in the library. Perhaps you weren't even aware it still existed in print. Those 32 paper volumes no longer play the role they once did, particularly for schoolchildren. Once upon a time, every child either used, or, to the chagrin of their teachers, relied solely upon Britannica to write their ubiquitous reports on the mineral wealth of Argentina. Today, they rely on the far less vetted Wikipedia to tell them everything they need to know.

The Encyclopedia Britannica was born 244 years ago, when a couple of gentlemen from Edinburgh in Scotland decided such a compendium of knowledge would be a useful tool. That first edition from 1768 contained only three volumes, but by the turn of the 19th century, had expanded to 20 volumes, closer to the size we recognize today. Over the years, it became the most useful tool for general research ever imagined. Every school or local library must have owned a set. Many other encyclopedias would appear, some fairly useful as well, but none carried the prestige of Britannica. If your family was particularly concerned with educating its children, and possessed a fair amount of wealth, you might even have had a set at home. More likely, you had a less expensive encyclopedia or none at all. The need for a genuine Britannica generally forced us to the library, perhaps not such a bad thing after all.

The beginnings of the shift from paper to digital go all the way back to the 1970s, though few could have foreseen then what would inevitably happen in 2012. Britannica began exploring a digital version at that time, which would go live in 1981 as part of the LexisNexis system. Lexis began in 1970 as an electronic resource of legal decisions for lawyers, later expanding to Nexis, which provided journal articles and more. It was (and still is) a database that reaches professionals in their field, but not a mass audience. Then, in 1989, Britannica made its first foray into the digital world for the public with the offering of its encyclopedia on CD-ROM. You could buy the compact disk, stick it in your computer, and the Encyclopedia Britannica was available in all its splendor on your computer screen. It also meant that a new competitor would soon arise, Microsoft's Encarta, an encyclopedia often included “free” with Microsoft's operating system. Encarta lasted for 17 years, or about 7% of the lifetime of Britannica, so far, before Microsoft pulled the plug, a victim of Wikipedia.

The next move into the digital age came in 1994, and this would be the one that eventually would drive a stake through the heart of the printed version. That is when Britannica first went online. Not many people had access to the internet in 1994, and few could have imagined how all-encompassing it would soon be. By the end of the decade, just a few years away, the internet would be swarmed with information and merchants, and the handwriting certainly must have been on the wall. It was now just a matter of time, and in the year 2000, that time turned out to be 12 more years.

In a statement, Encyclopedia Britannica President Jorge Cauz said, “The end of the print set is something we’ve foreseen for some time. It’s the latest step in our evolution from the print publisher we were, to the creator of digital learning products we are today.” Along with the encyclopedia, Britannica offers various other digital resources, most aimed at learning. They even provide “apps” so you can read the encyclopedia on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Yes, you can carry the entire Encyclopedia Britannica around in your pocket. That is much easier than the old days when you had to lug all of those heavy volumes off the shelf. The company announced that it will print no more paper volumes and discontinue selling them when its current inventory is gone.

The reason this event marks a bit of nostalgia, but should not be a cause for despair, is that electronic technology is far more suitable for a massive compendium of knowledge such as an encyclopedia. Printed books can still make sense for recreational reading if you prefer that format, but for large scale research, it hardly makes sense. A search can be conducted in a fraction of a second for content throughout the encyclopedia. With the printed version, unless your search term was a topic heading, you could face a daunting task trying to locate the information. Meanwhile, the electronic format allows the editors to add and update information on a daily basis. With the paper version, it could take years, and if you had gone to the expense of purchasing a set, it would likely be many years before you would want to invest in an updated version. In an electronic edition, Britannica can not only be thorough, it can also be timely. And, of course, it is so much easier to use than handling all of those large, printed volumes.

So we say goodbye to a tradition, a childhood friend when we had a report to write and wanted to spend as little time and effort on it as possible. It is time. Progress is usually a good thing, and in this case, it is clearly so. May Britannica long rule the electromagnetic waves.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750

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