Thursday, April 12, 2012

Half an Education

Last month,  Encyclopaedia Britannica ended a 244-year tradition with the announcement it would no longer print its books.  Like a growing number of publishers, it will now make its product available only electronically. 

The company said for some years the data base has been too big to fit in a printed version.  That is big as in huge; the last print edition fills 32 volumes. 

The Britannica books once were considered the repository of most human knowledge.  World Book was its only real competitor in the U.S. Although World Book still has a print edition, computers have pretty much made printed encyclopedias obsolete, first with CD versions and now with Wikipedia plus a variety of search engines.

Both Britannica and World Book were sold by an army of door-to-door salespeople for many years.   A set of encyclopedias was displayed in most middle-class homes in the U.S., even in those where reading clearly was not a top priority.  Having a set of encyclopedias was a status symbol.  The very successful had Britannicas; lesser beings owned World Books.

Reading was the dominant activity in our home, but we had only one moderately sized bookcase.  All of us had public library cards, and we used them often.  Financial investments in reading material went to subscriptions for magazines (Colliers, Good Housekeeping, and the Saturday Evening Post) and newspapers (one weekly and three dailies). The subscriptions took a big chunk of the disposable income around our place, but my parents considered the magazines and newspapers indispensable.

Dad tried to equip our home with World Books, even though a set cost a lot of scarce dollars back in the 1930s. Dad made a deal with one of the salesmen.  He started buying one volume at a time on a budget plan. Unfortunately, conditions took a turn for the worse in the family business, and only half a set of encyclopedias was in our bookcase when Dad was forced to end his buying program.

I loved to read the World Book volumes we had.  But if a quiz show ever issues an invitation to me, I’ll need to decline on grounds I'd be fairly good on items from A through M, but not nearly so wise beyond that.

“M” was as far as “human knowledge” went in our home when I was growing up and eager to absorb it all. 

Twice as many World Books as we owned.


JHawk23 said...

Ah yes, memories of the "old days" and how they are disappearing. So many papers to write for school but they were also interesting sometimes to browse.
My dad bought the "Book of Knowledge," a somewhat lesser breed than World Book (at least I always thought so). I don't know how he made that decision. I also recall the Encyclopedia Americana - nobody seemed to own one, but they were often encountered in libraries.

Personally I think the "encyclopedia" concept had a lot of merit and still does ( - even to the degree that I have decided to subscribe to the online Britannica - but the one drawback always was how quickly they could become out of date, and the yearbooks just never seemed to do the job.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Wikipedia is the best. I have written two articles for Wiki and know many more written by my class mates in our history program. The definitions are scrutinized by experts and edited so they are reasonably balanced. Support Wiki. Dianne

joared said...

Yes, I remember wishing we had a set of encyclopedias. My husband had a set -- forget which ones though I still have them. We finally stopped buying the annual up date volume.

I think it's a bit scary we'll soon be dependent on having the availability of all our knowledge dependent on energy to power our computers. I can imagine some interesting scenarios that send us quickly back to the stone age to start over again.

Kay said...

Sigh... I just loved our World Book Encyclopedia. Now I just look up everything on the Internet. It's faster. Is it more accurate? I don't know.