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Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
February 19
Maurice Tougas is a proud Canadian with an unhealthy fascination with the Excited States of America. He is an award-winning writer who, despite his self-professed brilliance as a writer, is currently seeking employment. Which is why he has time for blogs, and writing profiles in the third person.

Editor’s Pick
MARCH 16, 2012 4:19PM

Goodbye, Encyclopedia Britannica.

Rate: 7 Flag

There was a sad death this week that you may have missed.

The Encyclopedia Britannica — or, if you really want to get huffy about it, the Encyclopædia Britannica — has died. The Britannica will no longer print hardcover editions of the most reliable and beloved reference work in the world.

This is sad, but expected. The most recent 32-volume edition of the Britannica cost $1,395, which is a lot to pay for a set of books that most people used as a decorative flourish rather than an actual source of information. Britannica sales have been in decline for years (actual sales of the books accounted for only one per cent of the company’s revenues), so the end of the print version could hardly be a surprise. But it certainly marks the end of an era.

I grew up at a time when information was actually kind of hard to come by. My mom and dad were wise enough to buy us not only a complete Encyclopedia Britannica, but a full set of World Books, too. Having actual reference books in your home was a scholastic lifesaver. No trips to the library to do your Social Studies reports on Brazil (why was it always Brazil?). It was right there, at our fingertips, in our den.

If you can’t imagine having an actual set of books in your home, let me explain. There was no Internet. There was no Wikipedia. Our only source of information to students like me and my 10 siblings were these things called encyclopedias, which consisted of a number of “volumes”, which consisted of hundreds of pieces of “paper” bound together in “book” form.

I know … weird, huh? This is how we got vital information for our school reports, like “Coffee is the primary export of Brazil.”

As I mentioned, we had both the encyclopedia and the World Book. The World Book was kind of an Encyclopedia Britannica For Dummies, and much loved. Our set of World Books was pretty battered and dog-eared from use, while the Encyclopedia Britannica looked, for the most part, untouched. The World Book was like a friendly community college professor who put things in terms you could understand. The Encyclopedia Britannica was the stern university professor who really made you work for your grade. To be honest, I rarely looked at it. Too many words, not enough pictures.

The trouble with the World Book, or the Encyclopedia Britannica for that matter, was that it was old news the minute it was printed. Sure, the information on Julius Caesar would be the same for decades, but major scientific advances would have to wait for another volume — and there never was another volume. They were expensive, so you kept your World Books or Encyclopedia Britannica’s until the pages started to rot. I can’t remember exactly how old our books were, but I think the entry on space travel went only about as far as John Glenn orbiting the earth.

Truly, the era of beefy reference tomes is over. I have a set of the Canadian Encyclopedia, which I haven’t cracked open in years. Looks nice on my bookshelf, though. I also have an Oxford Dictionary of Quotation, a Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, The Penguin Canadian Dictionary, a huge Rand McNally Atlas of the World (with several countries that no longer exist) and The Complete Unexpurgated Scripts of the Original Monty Python TV Series, all basically overtaken by technology (except maybe the Python book).

Is this a bad thing? No, not really. The whole world had instant access to information that used to be difficult to come by, or available mostly to families that could afford reference books. So it’s all good, but it’s also a little sad that a 244-year-old piece of so many lives will cease to exist.


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A friend's dad was an encyclopedia editor. Back in the 1960s the dad would be watching the six o'clock news, and if a revolution were occurring in a remote part of the world, he'd say, "DAMN! We just put that issue to bed!"

Enjoyed your post!
I feel the same way about the end of print in Encyclopedia Britannica. We had the set which was dedicated to President Carter. I realize more and more we're entering an age of watered down, instantly accessible information, shorter attention spans, instant gratification, etc. Welcome to the world of Bradbury and F-451.
At one point in high school, desperate for money as every teen is, I dressed in suit and tie and went to a downtown office to interview for a job selling the Encyclopedia Britannica door-to-door. After going through all this trouble, my sister explained to me that I would be used as a stalking horse. I would never be allowed to sell anything or collect a commission. I was there to find prospects, to whom the real salesmen would make the real high-pressure sales pitches.

Owning one of these tree-killing disasters was worthless. I had an ancient off-brand encyclopedia my parents bought for my older siblings in the late 1940's. They never looked in the books. I looked in them briefly, to compare them to newer encyclopedias in the library. I then went to the primary sources that my teachers insisted were the only correct places I should be looking up things.

The end of EB is also the end of a hideous product used to guilt parents into spending money on a useless resource. At least the modern replacement, a computer for your kids, has the advantage that it can be used to find porn. You can't do that with the instantly-obsolete books gathering dust on the shelves.
Books in general are disappearing. That cartoon on Friday on OS about the little girl asking what bookshelves were for hit it too. Thank you for this great post. I kind of miss them. I spent some time going thru them and loving the looks of them. I learned from them. But they were getting musty. I don't like musty.
My first encounter with "knowledge" was as a 6 or 7 year old, when My dad, who was home from work, ill with a cold or something, told me to go get "Number 24" from the big set of navy blue books in the living room bookshelf in our tiny crackerbox of a house. No.24, of course, was the volume which had all the maps of the world in it. With it, my dad pointed out all the places he had been during World War II. Rio, France, the South Pacific, the Philippines, Austialia. He had been a merchant seaman and had sailed around the world a couple of times, he told me.

From that moment on, I was hooked on the EB. (I believe our edition was from 1943 or 1944, as I think my mother got talked into buying the set for her newborn son - me! I believe my general curiosity about the world began at that very moment. I really do!

I'm not particularly saddened by the book edition going away. It marches on as an online source, and assuming the quality of its entries is as good as the old printed edition were, it's there for the curious to read.

THE TEST: As a young kid, I remember stumbling into an entry called "Battleship" and there was fascinated by a page of black and white photos of battleships from various nations.

So, for fun, I just checked the same entry in the online edition of EB and there are far more pictures; they're in color, even along with some movie files on them - and with plenty of copy on the history of battleships. I'd say that's an improvement. All without the use of lumber for paper!

Now, excuse me while I go look up the Jin Dynasty in China. ;)
PS: I've always liked that oh-s0-terribly-British spelling, too. That "ae" combination lent an air of distinction to the EB.
Oh sob. Every time I come back to this thread, you ?Verschluggende? young !whippersnappers! have nailed a few more nails into my coffin. Well, at least the age-defined (age-isms?)) battle lines are growing clearer by the galloping minute.

Me, I loved books. Me, I still do. Me I have (gasp?!) over three thousand of 'em. I mean, some people try to orient their uncertainties via theological councils of trent. Me, I always figured I could "go look it up". Preferably in the EB; otherwise some of the many others. My question (to all you "!young whippersnappers"!): are you so SURE the obliteration of these long-ago writings to the sway of the quickness of a google search advances anything any of us really care about?
P.S. And, oh, to clarify my (my own fault) apparent choice to comment along lines of the "-isms" of "age", I feel ?compelled to add? "Some of my best friends sold EB too, when times were hard". ;-)

I bought a set--at point of a pistol, for a "friend"--in 1963. I got the updates for every year after that until......hm. Where are those damn things?
I have to say I am surprised, and even a little honored (or should that be honoured?), that so many comments have come from my little commentary on the encyclopedia. Thank you all for writing.
I have already given up on the digital version. I searched for 'Egon Friedell an amazing drinking raucenteur [sic] back in the dark Vienna of the thirties that thanks to him was not. He drank his way through life, the stage, vignettes and a prolific writer who wrote an amazing tome of Europe's history that is unequalled to this day. Not a mention at all. Sad really as was his end. He walked out of a third story window just as the Gestapo called in '38. He had an offer by the French who were going to save him but he couldn't leave his library behind. The man deserves to be remembered.
We bought our kids the paper edition in the late 80s including the children's version, the great works etc. Pre-interwebs this was a hugely valuable resource through school, but now it's taking up a lot of space. An earthquake hazard really, considering the furniture holding it all isn't strapped to the wall. Nowadays it's wikipedia all the way. Lets not start up the argument about the merits of the two I've seen elsewhere, but in defense of both, let me just point out how much Encarta sucked!