From Tracie: Saying Good-Bye to The Encyclopedia Britannica

Friday, March 16, 2012

Saying Good-Bye to The Encyclopedia Britannica

My grandparents had a set of World Book Encyclopedia from the 70s. They were light blue. I loved reading them when I was little.

I especially loved the page with all the flags of the world, the page with the pictures of the basic alphabet in sign language, and the page that had an optical illusion of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. He was drawn in red and blue, and if you stared at his nose for thirty seconds and then looked at a white wall, you would see him on the wall in proper color. It was weird, and I loved it.

The summer I was seven, I went to the mall with my parents and I saw a booth set up in the Sears with books. It was an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman, and I was immediately in love (not with the salesman, with the encyclopedias). They were beautiful, red and black covers with gold lettering. The pictures on the inside were amazing. They put my grandparent's old World Books to shame.

I wanted a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The salesman talked to my parents about credit options. It all sounded completely reasonable to me, they would serve as my Christmas, birthday, and Easter present for the next year. Or the next two years.

"The next five years. No other presents for five years, if we can just have these encyclopedias," I pleaded in exasperation that night, while looking at the shiny brochure the salesman sent home with me. My mother patiently tried to explain to me just how much they cost. We really couldn't afford them, I understand that now.

This scene repeated itself the next year when the encyclopedia salesman set up his booth in our Sears. I went home with a new, shiny brochure and two refrigerator magnets, but no encyclopedias. My father told me it was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on books that would become obsolete in a year or two.

The salesman eventually stopped setting up his booth in Sears after a few years. There were no new brochures or magnets to fuel my desire. 

Ad Encyclopaedia-Britannica 05-1913
Advertisement for the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica,
from the May 1913 issue of 
National Geographic Magazine. 
I read the World Books at my grandparent's house. I looked stuff up for fun and for school. In third grade I filled up a neat stack of index cards with information about the Pony Express and the history of mail in the United States for a research paper. In fourth grade there was a stack of index cards about Samuel Clemens. They were good encyclopedias, but in the back of my mind, I was always aware they weren't my beloved Encyclopedia Britannica.

My father brought home an early copy of the Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia for the computer. He was so excited that instead of just reading about the moon landing, you could watch a short video. I tried to be excited, but it seemed a shallow reproduction of the encyclopedias I wanted so badly, even with all the videos. (Clearly my love of real books instead of electronic versions is deep seated.) I never became proficient at looking things up with the computer program.

I almost bought the Encyclopedia Britannica in a used book store in my teens, but it wasn't a full set, so I held out.

In January, I was at the library with Thomas and Katarina, and they had the Encyclopedia Britannica in the reference section. I sat down with Katarina, and showed them to her. We looked up words, and maps, and countries, and I even found the page with all the flags of the world. It is all stuff we could have googled at any time, but it was special to sit on the floor with stacks of encyclopedias all around us, heads bent over the books, reading together.

Holding those books in my hands reignited my desire to have my own set. So you can imagine my sadness this week when I read that the after 244 years, the 2010 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica will be the final print edition, and all future editions will live online.

While the logical part of my brain understands that the digital edition will always be relevant and constantly updated- it won't be obsolete after one or two years the way my father assured me the printed books would be all those years ago - the rest of my brain does not want to accept it.

Although I never did get my printed set of Encyclopedia Britannica, there was always the thought and the hope that one day I would buy them (at $1,395 it is definitely not in my budget to get a copy of the final print edition now).

I'm left feeling nostalgic and a little heartbroken that there will never again be a new set of black and red encyclopedias sitting on shelves in living rooms all across the country. But if I ever find a complete set in a used bookstore, there will be black and red encyclopedias sitting on my shelves - no matter how old and obsolete they might be.

Good-bye Encyclopedia Britannica. I'll always love you.

Did you have a set of encyclopedias when you were growing up?


  1. I did have a set of encyclopedias and would sit and look at them for hours. They were not Encyclopedia Britannica (my parents could not justify the cost and instead found a gently used, out of date set of generics at a yard sale....which I adored), I used to drool over the Encyclopedia Brittanicas during reading time at our school library, I wondered if I was the only one with this obsession. LOL! Now, I'm realizing WE are normal girl! :)

    My son has a love for printed material as well. We visit our local library several times per week and spend hours reading. The other day, we returned 18 book (not joking...18 books) that we read every single day for an entire month (some more than once)! He amazes me at age 3, even knew the author for every single book!

    I am on a mission to find YOU a set of vintage Encyclopedia Britannicas! When I go thrifting, they are on my list! :)

    1. We are normal! And awesome!

      I love that your son loves books like that. It is so good when they start out wanting to read and be read to early in life.

      If you find me a set of vintage Encyclopedia Britannicas, I might just faint from excitement. <3

  2. Yes we grew up with them and remember them well

  3. This post touches me for some reason. We had a set, but not THE set. It was some other brand of encyclopedia, but I didn't love it like you did. You'll get your set one day.

    1. One day!!

      I'm glad you had a set, even if you didn't love it as much as me, I'm sure you got use out of it.

  4. We had the World Book Encyclopedia, but they had red spines, gold letters and gold page ends. We also had the accompanying children's versions. But, I loved our encyclopedias. I actually read most of them cover to cover. I still remember the smell. So distinctive. Amazing.

    1. The smell of books. I love it. LOVE it!!

      The World Book Encyclopedias have changed covers a lot. Now the covers are a big picture, or a collection of pictures that all go together. It is kind of cool, but doesn't have the same feel as the old spines.

      I think your World Books were fancier than my grandparents, because their pages ends were plain.

  5. The end of an era... we had a set of World Book Encyclopedia's from my grandparents that was so old it didn't even have a year on the spine... fomr the 1950's maybe?

    1. That is awesome. I wonder when the first Wold Book Encyclopedias were published (I foresee some googleing in my future tonight about that).

  6. I saw this announced on CNN Headline News and had a chuckle and a serious thought when Robin Meade ragged the weather guy for having gotten his anatomy education from The Encyclopedia Britannica...

    Chuckled because that is were I got my anatomy education from and thought "Well about 30 years difference is our ages and some parents are still not offering education to their children."

  7. Say? World Book Encyclopedia "The first edition (1917) contained eight volumes."

    Thanks! Wikipedia