Knowledge organised in random alphabetical chunks

In 2012, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that, after 244 years, fifteen editions and selling more than 7 million sets of its volumes, it was going out of print. The 32 volumes and 44 million words of the 2010 edition were its last.

No wonder. Print is expensive. Online is kinder to trees, too. Plus, there’s Wikipedia, which has more articles and is free. The other problem with printing something like 32 volumes of information is that the day after you’ve gone to print, some of the words, somewhere on one of those pages, are out of date. You can’t keep up.


The last print edition of Britannica on the shelves of my local library

Encyclopaedia Britannica is still very much alive, however. (Although at some points in its history it was owned by businesses from the United States, it largely retained its British spellings.) It is still an informational resource but a purely digital one. Knowledge is now via your keyboard, not via the shelf.

This is great. You can still find out what you want to know. What we have lost, though, in the transition from page to screen, is the pleasure of finding out what you didn’t know you wanted to know. If you lifted down a large volume to consult upon the nature of the loris, you might find yourself accidentally alphabetically lost in the lory on the next page, instead, or serendipitously surveying the lynx a little later. The pages somehow opened themselves: you didn’t need to click a link or anything.

We’ve also lost the joy of having our information organised by random alphabetical groupings. The editors had to chop the final 40,000 articles of the final print edition of the Britannica into 32 volumes of equal size, thus giving us some poetic juxtapositions. Digital editions will never force you into a sudden poetic contemplation of Arctic Biosphere, Chicago Death, Light Metabolism, or Metaphysics Norway.


Or even the transition from God to Goddess Worship

We’ve also lost the sense that, if you sat down to read these books from cover to cover — as several people did — then you might congratulate yourself that you now knew everything it was important to know. People of learning, the editors, had mulled and muttered over what was essential. If you didn’t know anything about Kardashians, say, then that was because Kardashians simply weren’t important. What was in those books was what mattered, and you could tell it mattered because each book weighed so much (about four pounds per volume). (Yet less likely than your computer to break if you dropped it.) “Here it is,” you could say. “Here is everything I need to know.” On the other hand, you never get to the end of the internet.

There’s something comforting about having a set of encyclopaedias. The government can’t suddenly switch off your access to them, for example. The articles  — all written by experts, too, not some random person with too much time on their hands — can’t suddenly be overwritten by an enthusiastic amateur who relies on popular, sometimes widespread, yet incorrect information to correct the “facts”.

Ernest Shackleton knew the value of a set of encyclopaedias. He took two sets of the Britannica with him on his Antarctic expedition. When you’re trapped on a polar ice-cap for six months, turns out printed matter can keep you sane, as well as become extraordinarily versatile.

Also, on the day that the electricity runs out, those of us with knowledge organised in random paper chunks in alphabetical order will still be able to light a candle — possibly with the pages themselves — and read a useful article called “How to Make More Candles”.


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