Connacht Tribune - Opinion Piece
Encyclopaedia Britannica – back when knowledge came in booksOctober 3, 2012 - 8:41am
Google can take credit for changing so much of the way we now acquire information – but the power of the search engine also means that there’s a generation who will look blankly at you when you mention the wonderful world of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
They will never know the infinite wisdom and knowledge contained with the covers of those big black leather books with their gold lettering that opened a youngster’s eyes to a wealth of facts on your bookshelf.
Want to know the history of the ancient Greeks? Look no further. The fastest animal on the planet; circumference of the planet; world’s rarest birds? All you had to know was the alphabet so you didn’t waste time looking up the wrong volume.
There was an episode of Friends where Joey – the dim one – buys just the ‘V’ volume for what he considered to be the bargain price of $50, when the full complement is $1,200. And he may well be right if he’s only interested in the world of vegetables, victims, volleyball and vomiting.
But, if you bought the full set – and really there was no other way, because we all know that a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing – you’d have 32 heavy volumes on a wooden shelf groaning under the pressure.
And if you went to the bother of buying them, then not displaying these massive books wasn’t an option either; the world – or at least that portion of the planet that visited your sitting room – had to know that here was a family with a few bob and a zest for knowledge.
We didn’t have a set in our house – if we did, quite frankly, we’d have had to build new shelves for them and all that seemed too much like hard work – but as children we marvelled when we saw this expanse of information proudly displayed in some house we went to visit.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica still exists and thrives of course, but online as opposed to in print since 1996 – and the salesmen too, who numbered 2,300 at their peak, are confined to history. The book format lasted for 244 years, since it was first compiled and printed in Edinburgh – but no more.
Partly it came down to price – about £1,000 before they stopped printing them – but mainly it was because of accessibility; you didn’t need to be pulling down heavy books when everything you needed was available at the end of a key word on your laptop.
And in reality owners of the Encyclopaedia Britannica seemed to prefer the notion of having all of this information at our finger tips more than actually consuming it – apparently, Britannica's own market research showed that the typical encyclopaedia owner opened the books just once or twice a year.
But the difference between the encyclopaedia and the internet is that, with the latter, you’re searching for something in particular and you find it in an instant – but with the former, you might take down a volume and find yourself engrossed in a world you never even knew.
And in many ways that mirrors life on so many fronts – everything has to be instantaneous and accessible, because there’s no time left to assimilate information by osmosis.
If the prophets of doom are to be believed, the encyclopaedia won’t be the last phenomenon in print to give way to digital – last year saw e-book revenue for US publishers alone double to over $2 billion, and the trend is only in one direction.
But there are enough readers of the printed page still out there to insure this isn’t a slide to the death; because if no one buys books, how you do hand on your favourites to your children; what stocks the shelves in you sitting room – and how does one casually pick up a book they’ve never heard of, only to find themselves engrossed on the couch?
There are many, many advantages to e-books – and to acquiring knowledge in an instant, thanks to Google – but there’s nothing like the feel of a book or the smell of its pages.
Just as there’s a lot to be said for the big old bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica – even if, like Joey from Friends, you’ve only got the one on ‘V’.
For more, read this week's Connacht Tribune.