Happy memories leafing through encyclopedias
After 244 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print. Not out of business, but certainly out of sight on library shelves where I'm sure many of us were weaned on research from the time we started submitting reports in grade school to those late stressed nights in the college library as we wrapped up a crucial term paper that was due the next day. For my family, Encyclopedia Britannica was too expensive, so we made do with Grolier's Book of Knowledge or similar sets of books that occasionally were offered as specials at supermarkets. They were pretty to look at on the bookshelf with their fake gold leaf binding but the pictures and type size were too small for easy reference.
When we acquired a set of World Book encyclopedias, the page-thumbing pace picked up along with the quality of the material. Still not the Cadillac of encyclopedias, World Book was a close competitor to Britannica with a far better sales force and monthly payment plan that more parents could afford. So when I stopped at the Pleasanton Library the other day for a last look at Encyclopedia Britannica, I was surprised to learn that the champion of those kinds of publications has long since been replaced by World Book, with a jazzy cover for the entire set of books that fill a couple of shelves in the children's section.
When Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it was ceasing publication of its iconic multi-volume books sets, there was a bit of sadness that this could mark the end of an era in print literature. Today, we easily Google for information with answers long before we could even get the right Britannica volume off the shelf. Its online competitor, Wikipedia, has even more data, graphs, maps, charts and photos, with references in most listings to additional data with the click on the highlighted subject. Still, there's something nostalgic about turning the pages of a printed encyclopedia as I did the other night while leafing through a World Book. Unlike online searches, I kept stopping as I used to do to look at photos and topics on the pages I was turning. There's always something new that you don't see in online searches that take you right to your chosen topic.
Few readers are probably as worked up as I've been over the demise of these printed book sets. Of course, I'm in the print business and don't want to see it disappear into digital thin air. Take the local bookstores. There's still something special about browsing through an aisle of books. It's just not the same walking through a section of packaged CDs or computer screens. Many of the reference books that had prominent space in these stores have taken the worst hit with the rise of digital.
Britannica's president Jorge Cauz said recently that the encyclopedia's print sets for its final 2010 edition represented less than 1% of the company's total sales. The print set is an icon of Encyclopedia Britannica, but it doesn't do justice to how much Britannica has changed over the years, Cauz said. Even the online version of the encyclopedia, which was first published in 1994, represents only 15% of the company's revenue, with the other 85% these days coming from education products, online learning tools, curriculum products and more.
World Book posts its 22-volume print edition on DVD-ROM discs, too, with even videos and sound clips to make it livelier. Its deluxe edition also includes homework wizards to help in a student's research, a full-length video set, simulations and animations. I'm not sure how all that would work on a laptop in a quiet college library during finals time or how much creative inspiration goes into a term paper today to make it different from the same search effort going on at the next table. Obviously, with the advent of the Internet and Wikipedia, the encyclopedia's days are numbered so enjoy holding a print edition of World Book at the Pleasanton library while you can.