Many of those of us who are “booky” will have the Encyclopaedia Britannica as part of our childhood. Certainly in my case there was never even the possibilty of having it at home! The price would have been well outside the reach of my parents’ income. However I was lucky enough to attend a grammar school of very old foundation (Queen Elizabeth the first) in the UK and the old creaky library had two Britannicas one fairly old – one rather newer – ie only several years old.
As an 11 year old the EB seemed to contain all the knowledge I would ever need – I was both awestruck and awe inspired by so many volumes. Every time I opened one of those volumes it was a journey into adventure.
Why are we all so sad ?
Last week it seemed I couldn’t access Facebook, Twitter or the Internet in general without seeing a reference to sadness at the demise of a printed Britannica. I too felt sad! This made me explore the “why” in my own mind. I am definitely a “book” person of eclectic tastes – we have several thousand books which travelled half-way round the world with us when we moved from the UK to Australia. So there is at least one reason why I would be sad – loss of any printed book option is sad for me. However the comments I have seen and my own thoughts go beyond my normal response to loss of a print option.
The disappearance of print versions of many texts has been happening for quite a while but this seems something of a watershed for many of us. Perhaps (and I feel this is definitely so for me) this stems from reasons that are more to do with our “comfort zones” and the iconic nature of the EB than with its undoubted former value as a reference. I certainly feel that a childhood friend is lost to me forever – an over-reaction certainly! After all the print versions of the EB won’t simply vanish, there will just not be any new editions. I am sure that the EB will remain on many shelves for many years so that we can still access and savour the feeling of exploring a topic in a printed form. I know that his is something I do even though I have been fully aware for many years that much content in any large reference book is out of date well before it is printed.
The very fact that the content of a book once published is “cast in stone” has given us interesting opportunities to explore change in meaning, understanding and development of knowledge over time. Even as a child I often looked up a topic in both editions of the EB available to me in my school library (one about 30 years older than the other) and saw the changes in understanding and knowledge that were reflected there. I suspect that seeing these differences was fundamental in shaping both: my own awareness of the non-immutability of some “facts”; and my understanding that perceptions of events and information changes with time. In my opinion it is much harder in an online context to chart those perceptual differences as there is often no definitive change of edition – online material is often continuously updated in small increments. Finding previous versions can also be difficult as they may be deleted or overwritten. This is not to say that I don’t love being able to access vast amouts of information and soak up knowledge anywhere, anytime – I most definitely do. For me the Internet is a “magic carpet” and “open sesame” and I would never want to go back to having only printed books as information sources!
I count myself lucky that I now have a set of the EB! As a child I would have given much for this. A friend and colleague recently moved and was going to get rid of her set of Britannica – I couldn’t bear the thought of this and they now have a home with us. For myself this feels very much like the beginning of the end of an era. I am still sad at the loss of this particular printed text. I suspect I will be even sadder if/when the day comes when that other (for me) great institution as a reference text the Oxford English Dictionary decides to be available online only!