The news that Encyclopedia Britannica is going digital only was not a huge shock. Information is changing too fast for the fixed format of an encyclopedia, and those things were heavy and took up a LOT of space, but it did make me a bit nostalgic.
Back in the day (sounds better than “in the olden days”), encyclopedia salesmen actually traveled around, their job to persuade parents that their children would do better in school with an encyclopedia in the house, rather than just in the library.
My parents were convinced to purchase a World Book set and each year for, well, I’m not sure how for how long, but they used to get a supplement with all the information that had changed or whatever during the past year. This was long enough ago that Pluto was still a planet and Uranus wasn’t. With or without the supplements, this encyclopedia is more source of amusement and curiosity than helpful resource and I can’t prove or disprove its efficacy in improving our school grades since I lost interest about an hour after it arrived.
There are editions of encyclopedias, however, that transcend their time frame. The 1910 (eleventh) edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is one. It is the last encyclopedia of its type because many of the articles were written by some of the best writers of the time. Even lesser known writers were destined to become famous. It also included, for the first time, articles written by women (though they weren’t given credit for their articles).
Sir Kenneth Clark wrote of this edition that “one leaps from one subject to another, fascinated as much by the play of mind and the idiosyncrasies of their authors as by the facts and dates.”
Not everyone loved it and it very much reflects the prejudices and sexism of the time. For instance, Marie Curie does not get an entry, despite winning two Nobel Prizes. She is mentioned in her husband’s biography.
What this edition does do, is give the reader a glimpse into the past, what was considered important to know back then, and the limits on what they did know. There are pages and pages on lighthouses, for instance. I used it when trying to understand steam engines when writing Tangled in Time.
The entry on hurricanes is stunningly small until you realize they just didn’t know that much about the storms.
It is a very well written historical artifact that could be useful to the historical writer, those writing steampunk, or the reader who just loves browsing through time.
If you’d like to know more about this edition, here’s the Wikipedia link.
I have an aging, print set I found on a used book site, but this edition is in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg (follow the Wiki link above to find all digital editions) or search Amazon for the kindle editions if you’d like to take a stroll through the past.
Are there old textbooks, encyclopedia’s, or reference material that you’ve learned to love since you grew up? Will you miss hefting those tomes down off the shelf? Do share.
Pauline Baird Jones was not as enthusiastic about encyclopedias when she was young. In fact, she found them quite painful to peruse, so she is aware this blog post is a bit ironic and might make a former teacher snort. But she loves research more now that has published 12 novels and written a couple of nonfiction books. You can find out more about her at www.paulinebjones.com
Will You Miss Those Encyclopedic Tomes?