An Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1771 at a New York Public Library. New York Times photo by Angel Franco.

An Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1771 at a New York Public Library. New York Times photo by Angel Franco.



In our house, the red leatherette World Book Encyclopedia sat on a shelf in the dining room, and, below it, the heavier, denser set of Encyclopedia Britannicas. My dad had bought the Britannicas used from the library at the university where he taught, and they were a bit outdated, They lacked the color pictures of the World Book, and they weren't quite as fun. (I once made a doll out of an old tennis sock, following instructions in the World Book.) But the Britannica was the encyclopedia to go to when we really wanted to learn something.

Unlike the World Book, it didn't talk down to us. It wasn't simplified for kids.

Before Google, before the Internet, the Britannicas were our first stop (before the library) for gathering information for school reports and for looking up things we needed to know. But their real joy came from the serendipity they allowed. They opened up the world! All you had to do was turn the page.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, bored out of your gourd, you could sit down on the dining room floor, lug one of those great books off the shelf and into your lap, and leaf through it, stopping at whatever looked interesting.



Ah, but no longer.  It was announced on Tuesday that Encyclopedia Britannica has stopped publishing a print edition. When the current stock runs out, it's done. They will continue to publish digital versions--which have, indeed, been the bulk of their sales for the last several years. This ends a long tradition, beginning in Scotland in 1768.

And of course I understand that. Encyclopedias are big and heavy, they take up a lot of room, they grow dusty and outdated, they are expensive to replace. Each volume can only be used by one person at a time. ("Hey, who has 'Freon to Holderlin'?")

Digital encyclopedias are more efficient in every way--you can scan, you can search, you can click immediately to whatever it is you're looking for.

But efficiency, I think, is overrated.

In this age of targeted, surgical searches, we are missing so much! Without card catalogs in libraries, there's no more leafing through those narrow wooden drawers, flipping from manila card to manila card, stumbling across things that you didn't know existed. Without neighborhood bookstores (and yes, some cities no longer have bookstores), how do you browse the tables and discover new titles, new authors? Amazon is no replacement for that.

A digital encyclopedia will tell me everything I need to know--as long as I know what I'm looking for.

But on a rainy Sunday afternoon, who knows what I'm looking for? I am looking to be captivated, caught by surprise and transported. And I don't think Wikipedia can give me that.

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