Rest in Print, Britannica: An Elegy for an Encyclopedia


And then they were no more. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. announced Tuesday that it would no longer offer its venerable reference set in a printed edition. Western Civilization just took another hard blow to the chin.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” said Jorge Cruz, president of the Chicago-based company. He went on to celebrate the new digital age. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continually updated, it’s much more expansive, and it has multimedia.”
Bah humbug. I’ll admit that I am taking this personally. I own no less than four complete sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I own a replica of the original 1768 edition, published in Edinburgh, Scotland. That work is a marvel in itself–a compendium of human knowledge in the Enlightenment Age. The work was patterned after Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, published just a few years earlier in France. The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was a great success, even if King George III did order certain female anatomical drawings removed as obscene.
The 1911 edition is a monument of English-speaking civilization, printed on onionskin paper and set with elegant type. I once heard William F. Buckley Jr. describe it as the last great repository of human knowledge. This edition is not for the casual reader. It makes significant literary demands of those who delve in. But rewards and riches are found within its blue-bound volumes. This edition reveals a world of monarchs and empires, published just a few years before that entire civilization crashed on the killing fields of World War I.
During the 1950s, the Encyclopaedia Britannica became a fixture of middle-class America. Families aspired to purchase the set in all of its faux-leather elegance. Its presence in the home reflected the family’s sense of cultural and intellectual aspiration. The cultural elites–the Updikes and Cheevers of the literary set–despised Britannica as hopelessly “middlebrow.” Nevertheless, their own adolescent children no doubt went to the Britannica when they needed to start a research paper. Where else would you go?
The latest edition of Britannica looks positively regal on the bookshelf. It is huge, elegant, heavy, and filled with authoritative information. Families once desired the printed edition with such fervor that they bought it on the installment plan, forgoing other purchases. Door-to-door salesmen took Britannica into the suburbs and out to the farms, selling knowledge–and a special bookcase for those who lacked furniture adequate to hold such a repository of knowledge. Door-to-door sales ended in 1996.
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Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.