Rule, Britannica
March 13, 2012 8:35 PM   Subscribe

 
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posted by mollymayhem at 8:41 PM on March 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


Honestly I am surprised it has taken this long. It must be at least 15 years since I have picked up an encyclopedia, not counting when I was in jail and cut out pictures from the 1946 World Book Encyclopedia, or somesuch, to make Mother's Day cards for my mom and (at the time future) mother-in-law.

As a kid I had a set of Collins Encyclopedias (maybe Colliers, not sure) and I loved it. My Grandmother got it piecemeal over about 3 years or more from the local Minyard's Grocery Store and gave it to me for Christmas when I was ten. I still have it on my shelf, more as a reminder of her than anything else.

When Oliver Stone's JFK came out I was 14 and I came home from that movie all fired up because I thought I would be able to solve the case by reading all the relevant entries in the encyclopedia, and I did! (spoiler alert: it was Oswald!).

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posted by holdkris99 at 8:43 PM on March 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


"And [Wikipedia] has nearly four million articles in English, including some on pop culture topics that would not be considered worthy of a mention in the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

Some? I once got lost for twelve hours reading articles about the Marvel universe alone.
posted by ztdavis at 8:43 PM on March 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


(A walk into my office has confirmed the Encyclopedia set to be Collier's.)
posted by holdkris99 at 8:44 PM on March 13, 2012


with a $1,395 price tag. ... Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought.

Guessing there will be a sales boost after this news.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:48 PM on March 13, 2012


NY Times: "The Britannica, the oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, has become a luxury item with a $1,395 price tag."

The first edition cost 12 pounds sterling (cite: Wikipedia History of the E.B.). According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, that's 1661.73 pounds in today's money. That converts to $2,607.25.

I'm thinking it was a luxury item from the beginning.
posted by Jahaza at 8:50 PM on March 13, 2012 [20 favorites]


I grew up with a 1960's set of Britannica my parents had bought at a yard sale. You could get history, art, culture, but what amazed me the most was the great deal of chemistry and industrial engineering. Section views of cement kilns, refineries, steel mill blast furnaces. I figured with a copy of it you could jump-start a civilization quite a way. Solid acid free paper too, easy to bury and keep safe for a few centuries. I still doubt I could format a good portion of Wikipedia in such a reliable way.
posted by nickggully at 8:50 PM on March 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


I remember going in to the Harvard Cooperative Society ("The Coop") in the early 80s as a teenager. There was a small corner of the bookstore where an old guy just sat there under a sign that said "Encyclopedia Britannica". I never once saw him talking to any customers. Once in a while, he wouldn't be there and I'd check out the volumes for sale. When the store contracted * a few years later, I remember thinking, "he'll be the first to go!" Sure enough.

* Among other things they got rid of the men's clothing and toy department, the latter in which I spent many a day. They also got rid of their Andrew Wyeth print department. To this day, I can't figure out why it was there.
posted by Melismata at 8:52 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I got a subscription to the Britannica site a decade ago.

I accessed that site last about a year ago.

I think the last time I looked at a printed version might have been 25 years ago.

I used Wikipedia to look something up this afternoon.
posted by jscalzi at 8:52 PM on March 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


I had a friend who got a job (read enslaved) selling Britannica. They put them up (read dumped them in a caravan park with no food, money nor caravan) on the outskirts of Sydney and they had to go door to door. My mate threw his sample copy in a bin and hitched back to Brisbane.

So. Fuck em.
posted by mattoxic at 8:53 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's a shame. I like reference shelves and the books that comprise them.

"Britannica is going to be smaller. We cannot deal with every single cartoon character, we cannot deal with every love life of every celebrity. But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter."

Indeed. But also, we need to have an alternative that is well written. Conveying a new subject isn't just about getting your facts straight. The writing also needs to be comprehensible to lay readers. Building an encyclopedia isn't an easy task and I hope there will continue to be professionals doing the job.
posted by cribcage at 8:55 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I blame this irritating punk. (Yeah, I know, son of Stan Freberg.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:56 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Please remember me; I was the kid with the report due on space.
posted by sourwookie at 8:56 PM on March 13, 2012 [12 favorites]


Goodbye, Britannica. I think the most fitting memorial I can offer is a memory of how you first came into my life.

Come taste the adventure
Come reach to the sky
Come feel the excitement
of Who, What Where, Why...

posted by saturday_morning at 8:57 PM on March 13, 2012


I'm surprised with all the book fetishists, they couldn't come up with something smaller and less costly that'd keep them in business. God knows enough people berate me for owning a Kindle.

I think that means I'm going to be one of the last generations for whom owning a set of encyclopedias was a big deal, because they were all I had pre-Internet unless I could convince my mom to drive me to the library. I think we still have my set and those update books that came out every year with new and updated information floating around somewhere. End of an era.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:58 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


We had a Britannica growing up, but I never felt particularly fond of it. The print was tiny and the tone was dry.

I highly preferred my dad's old 1947 World Book. It was a . . . highly problematic volume (I learned about the "three races of man" in there) in some ways, but it was illustrated and rich and interesting and I went on my own version of proto-wiki walks through them, and by the time I'd be done, it would be three hours past my bedtime and every volume would be open on the floor. Memories like that make me realize that my internet addiction just feeds the same hunger for knowledge and words that was always there, latent inside of me. I'm glad these resources existed for people before the internet. But I'm glad we have the internet now, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:58 PM on March 13, 2012 [16 favorites]


This makes me kind of sad. We need to establish a few more royals, or at least some elitist and civic-minded aristocrats, to fund things like public gardens, libraries, the Britannica, and the telephone book. Maybe this could be reborn as the Buffetannica? The LeBronnica?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:03 PM on March 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wish they'd reconsider completely entirely stopping publication of the print edition. Were I King, I would order them to run a few thousand print copies every 5 or 10 years or so. When SHTF, the encyclopedia on paper is still there. All of my cell phones die after a few days without power. I guess my old feature phone does last around 5 days on a charge and can do (crappy) web browsing in a pinch, and judicious use of an eink reader could probably give you a month of useful life, should you have obtained the reference material in advance.

But yes, even when I was a kid encyclopedias were often bought as status symbols. Why else would they have made leather bound editions with gold leaf embossing on the cover?
posted by wierdo at 9:04 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


After buying my house, the first thing I did was run out and buy a brand new set of Britannica's.

I recall that the salesman kept trying to "sell" me on the encyclopedia. I was like, "Dude, Take My Money!" and he kept trying to "pitch" it to me.

Once I had it, I gloated over that beautiful, bound bastard like a dragon hugging its treasure. "Mine! Mine! All this knowledge is mine!"

And, really, in all sincerity, it was a wonderful thing to pick up a volume, leaf through it, and become engrossed in the secret life of sponges or the lineage of some obscure line of Dukes. It was, I think, shortly after this that I cut back on "fantasy and science fiction" and became fascinated by history (which, unlike fiction, does not need to make sense).

What I would miss most, about the online EB, is the ability to share it with others, something that I adore about Wikipedia. "Oh, hey, guys! Check this out! Let me give you the inside scoop about riverines!" Can I link to an EB article? If so, $70 is cheap, just to be "right" on the Internet!
posted by SPrintF at 9:04 PM on March 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


I'm just going to replace it by printing out Wikipedia. Sure, it will take 1641 volumes, but I was planning on constructing a new building adjacent to my house just for this purpose.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:04 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought they had gone under a few years ago, so this surprised me. Wikipedia has huge flaws, but it also managed to destroy the business model of the print encyclopedias; I hope that either a hybrid model emerges eventually that captures the good parts of both.
posted by Forktine at 9:05 PM on March 13, 2012


I still doubt I could format a good portion of Wikipedia in such a reliable way.

Wasn't there a service that would sell you a complete snapshot of Wikipedia at a given point in time? All the terabytes on a drive, which could then be copied endlessly, to any format desired.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:06 PM on March 13, 2012


The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

I remember fondly my first encyclopedia set as a building block on the way to me being the wiseass I am today, but if anything announces the uselessness of Britannica, here it is in one sentence. Global warming was mentioned in testimony to Congress in 1988, a focus of the Rio summit in 1992 and the cause of the Kyoto protocol signed in 1997, the subject of the 2006 Oscar winning documentary, and one of the most important threats facing society. And it wasn't in Britannica until 2010. The Human Genome Project was founded in 1990, had produced a draft sequence of the human genome in 2000, the full sequence in 2006 and had published the last chromosome in Nature in 2006. But it wasn't in Britannica until 2010.

But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter. Britannica won’t be able to be as large, but it will always be factually correct.

In the 2010 Britannica, Mu'ammar Qadafi and Osama Bin Laden are still alive, Berlusconi and Mubarak are still the presidents of Italy and Egypt, and the Fukushima nuclear reactor and Greek economy are still humming along.

But let's remember to disparage Wikipedia as the one without the facts.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:07 PM on March 13, 2012 [46 favorites]


BTW, nostalgia aside, one more nail in the Britannica >>>>>>> Wikipedia argument: The Britannica's entry on the Masters was written by Arnold Palmer. So much for expertise! Wikipedia would have allowed Nicklaus to edit his entry.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:11 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Googling around for Christopher Tietjens led me to this exemplary Wikipedia talk page.
posted by otio at 9:11 PM on March 13, 2012


Don't forget that Carl Sagan penned the Brittanica entry for "life". If that ain't the definition of "class act" I don't know what it.
posted by sourwookie at 9:17 PM on March 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


But what will hold up the tables at our salvation army thrift stores?

Sad to hear, as a kid who's spend an hour leafing through the library's massive set just looking up random things and browsing, I feel like buying a set and keeping it in a cool, dry, dark place in case future archeologists need to reconstruct the past.
posted by The Whelk at 9:20 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Encyclopedias just sound so much purer on vinyl.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:21 PM on March 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


I loved the entry on costumes, which had 10 color pages showing various garb from around the world and through the centuries.
posted by desjardins at 9:22 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wasn't there a service that would sell you a complete snapshot of Wikipedia at a given point in time? All the terabytes on a drive, which could then be copied endlessly, to any format desired.
Actually, all of the currently English text is less than 8GB compressed, or ~30 uncompressed. It's available here. The images, however, are another matter and no tools are provided by Wikipedia to copy them all, due to licensing restrictions. I don't believe anything will try to stop you if you scrape all of the images, but the recommendation is to do so "at your own risk".
posted by WaylandSmith at 9:23 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had some encyclopedias as a kid, inherited from my grandfather. My school report topics were thus restricted to events that occurred before 1950, and that started with letters we weren't missing for some reason. Even for topics that fell within those bounds, there was about one paragraph of information, which I then rephrased repeatedly until I had a "paper." Also they smelled funny. Good riddance.

Whatever you think of Wikipedia, this is what the internet was made for: being able to get updated information without having a new set of multi-thousand-dollar, multi-hundred-pound books shipped to your house every hour.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:23 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Remember when they would sell one volume, usually "K" for some reason, in the grocery store for 9 cents, presumably to "get you hooked?" The only topics I had up-to-date information for were the ones that started with "K."
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:26 PM on March 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


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posted by Artw at 9:27 PM on March 13, 2012


In an effort to boost sales the latest edition has the words "Don't Panic" written on the cover in large, friendly letters.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:33 PM on March 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'll miss the idea of having a print version around, but am somewhat comforted by the fact that it will be around the web for a while. Though it should be noted that there's no guarantee that the web version won't go poof either.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:36 PM on March 13, 2012


But let's remember to disparage Wikipedia as the one without the facts.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 23:07 on March 13


I disparage Wikipedia as the one where expertise is disparaged in favor of experience (previously on Metafilter), and where people post all sorts of pop culture trivia.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:40 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Remember when they would sell one volume, usually "K" for some reason, in the grocery store for 9 cents, presumably to "get you hooked?" The only topics I had up-to-date information for were the ones that started with "K."

Oh, yeah, that's where we got mine. There was an endcap in the grocery store we went to with various letters for some reasons and then some kind of form you could fill out to buy the rest. Wow, talk about a memory dredged up out of nowhere. Ours was a Funk and Wagnall's set.

There used to be lots of series like that, always in the grocery store. I think I still have some set (with like 70 volumes) of American History hardbacks we got in a different grocery store, then hunted up the missing ones for like 3 months.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:40 PM on March 13, 2012


I remember reading through the encyclopedia as a kid--an article about relativity. At the end was the author's initials: AE. Then there was a long article about guerrilla warfare with the nitials TEL

I had to search all over the books until I finally found a guide that lists the authors.


Albert Einstein, TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
posted by eye of newt at 9:48 PM on March 13, 2012 [16 favorites]


I disparage Wikipedia as the one where expertise is disparaged in favor of experience (previously on Metafilter), and where people post all sorts of pop culture trivia.

Heh, I just looked up the current world book, and:
*Highlighting the edition are new and expanded articles on binge eating, biofuel, Castro, computer security, Emmett Till case, martial arts, Michelle Obama, rock music, Superman, swine flu, television, Kanye West, professional wrestling, among many other topics.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:50 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by darkstar at 9:53 PM on March 13, 2012




Don't mourn. There have never been more print encyclopedias than are currently available. They are all specialized though, as they should be. A general encyclopedia is outdated, unless it is all encompassing like Wikipedia.
posted by stbalbach at 9:59 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I disparage Wikipedia as the one where expertise is disparaged in favor of experience (previously on Metafilter), and where people post all sorts of pop culture trivia.

I totally get your first point; Wikipedia is not without its flaws. But I've never really gotten the second one. Wikipedia is online, and they're not running out of hard drive space. It's not like a print encyclopedia, where adding an article on Sandman means you have to trim down the article on Shakespeare. (Or where adding an article on She-Cat means you have to trim down the article on Sandman, for that matter.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:01 PM on March 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
posted by moonbird at 10:03 PM on March 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


and where people post all sorts of pop culture trivia

And this is a problem ... why?
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:04 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Burglar
posted by unliteral at 10:08 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


My only problem with posting pop culture trivia is that the shows and pages I most like seem to get brutally cut down by editors on a rampage because they don't fulfill the flimsy sourcing requirements.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:08 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK, now I want a set of encyclopedias and I won’t rest until I get one.
posted by bongo_x at 10:17 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


World Book still lives.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:17 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think what is really being lost here is any sense of a finite container for human knowledge. I wanted to be like that guy who read the whole Encyclopedia. I spent way too much for the entire set, but it gave me comfort, because occasionally I would glance over at my bookshelf and think "I've got all the Important Human Knowledge right there." I never got around to reading the whole thing, but just knowing that I possessed all that knowledge was comforting enough.

You don't get that feeling with online sources. The web just goes on forever; you can't see where it ends. The EB was 129 pounds - too much to actually digest, but weighty enough to give you a sense that you had all of it. They used to say someone had an "encyclopedic" knowledge, but they never say someone has a "Wikipedic" knowledge. That sense of having all things in the palm of your hand, or at least on a few shelves, is gone.

I don't know why I ever wanted that sense. Good riddance.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:23 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is out of date, taz isn't in the Moderation section.
posted by unliteral at 10:28 PM on March 13, 2012


Wikipedia has huge flaws, but it also managed to destroy the business model of the print encyclopedias

The first CD-ROM encyclopedia arrived in 1989, and for many years they wee inescapable as freebies.

Anyway, I always thought it was amusing that the Encyclopedia Britannica hailed from Chicago, the Britannica Building to be precise. For a couple of years I had a job where I frequently got to look down on it.
posted by dhartung at 10:38 PM on March 13, 2012


they never say someone has a "Wikipedic" knowledge

I do actually use that expression, but in a kind of snarky way, so your point stands.
posted by aubilenon at 10:46 PM on March 13, 2012


people post all sorts of pop culture trivia

Trivia to one person is notable fact to another. You may want to re-examine your biases. Charles Dickens was pop culture once too, back when writing novels was akin to television and serious authors wrote epic poetry.
posted by stbalbach at 10:47 PM on March 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


twoleftfeet, I think you make a key point. Having a finite, tangible sense of "here's everything I (potentially) know" is far more personally satisfying than any open-ended seemingly infinite resource such as Wikipedia - let alone the whole of the Internet - could ever be. That it's considered more fallible than the EB was thought to be (as, for instance, Homeboy Trouble pointed out) only deepens the subtle sense of loss. Somewhere along the line we all had to give up the notion of ever being a Renaissance Man; and possibly, on a personal level at least, we are the poorer for it...
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:48 PM on March 13, 2012


I wanted to be like that guy who read the whole Encyclopedia.

A Jacobs is a stunt guy doing it for economic reasons. I'm most impressed with Amos Shirk who read the entire Britannica 1911 edition in 4 years, then when done read the 14th edition. And read the complete works of Dickens 3 times, complete works of Balzac twice(!), and complete works of Dumas twice. He also introduced vitamin capsules to grocery stores.
posted by stbalbach at 10:55 PM on March 13, 2012


Fifteen years ago the Britannica was still a pretty amazing thing. Now it's silly, cumbersome and a waste of resources. So, vale Britannica.
posted by tumid dahlia at 11:01 PM on March 13, 2012


This makes me a bit sad. When I was a kid, I had limited access to English-language books but my family had the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Children's Britannica, so I'd spend a lot of weekends with a random volume.
posted by loulou718 at 11:14 PM on March 13, 2012


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posted by Iridic at 11:39 PM on March 13, 2012


Well, I read all of the Funk and Wagnall's set that my parents bought weekly at the grocery store. I was totally jealous of the few Britannica owners I knew. Analog nerddom was sometimes fun.
posted by Isadorady at 12:04 AM on March 14, 2012


My only problem with posting pop culture trivia is that the shows and pages I most like seem to get brutally cut down by editors on a rampage because they don't fulfill the flimsy sourcing requirements.

These days they're more likely just to stick a warning on the page, then move on. The number of articles I've seenw ith years old warnings about notabilty or sourcing or whatever is unbelievable. I always remove them; if something has been done about it in two years or more, it's probably not a real problem.

The EB otoh was always an encyclopedia for a certain kind of fact fetishist, with the 1911 edition being the one most venerated. On the plus side, it provide some of my favourite sf authors (Poul Anderson for one) with some extra income in the fifties writing articles for it...
posted by MartinWisse at 12:07 AM on March 14, 2012


This just in - Wikipedia to launch new sharing / social platform: Wikipedia+
posted by iotic at 12:26 AM on March 14, 2012


As a book hungry child, I fiercely coveted my neighbor's Encyclopedia Britannica. So many volumes...and the SMELL. Wikipedia lacks that smell.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 12:27 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I once decided to start reading the Brittanica in my school library from the first volume to the last. That's how I got to know what an Aardvark is, and that there was a town called Adilabad in my state (province) in India. I can't remember anything else from that exercise, but I do remember being quite numbed, but holy crap alive! (There was so much new stuff to know!) from that exercise.

Also, when I was about 12 or 13, I wanted to ask my folks for a Brittanica set, just as my buddy from school got one for his birthday, but eventually hesitated quite a bit because of the price. Just so happened that my dad bought a CD drive instead for the family computer. When we opened the drive's package, I found a free copy of Grolier's CD encyclopedia bundled with it, along with a copy of SimCity. Felt like the luckiest kid in the world.

. (I guess)
posted by the cydonian at 12:41 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah... SimCity rocked.

You mean...? Oh...

Actually, the first pc with a cd drive I got was Encarta 95 and I hated it. I always ended up answering school essays by reading the 50 year old encyclopedia in the living room and extrapolating what must have happened since. It made for some interesting historical anomalies.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 12:58 AM on March 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


I feel a sense of loss for EB, I had many a happy day in the school library reading it and always coveted one for myself.
posted by arcticseal at 1:11 AM on March 14, 2012


Goodbye, Menage Ottawa.
posted by run"monty at 2:27 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


We could only afford World Book. It had some good points, like the annual Year in Science volume, and, when I was younger, the 2 volumes of People to Know in Childcraft. But I knew that I was meant for better things.
posted by thelonius at 3:53 AM on March 14, 2012


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posted by Elly Vortex at 4:26 AM on March 14, 2012


The moment I realized this was inevitable was in the supermarket in 1999, when I saw a CD-ROM of the World Book Encyclopedia attached to a block of processed cheese as a free gift.
posted by bendybendy at 4:30 AM on March 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


The only real encyclopedia anybody truly needs is Men of Achievement 1974.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:32 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recall that the salesman kept trying to "sell" me on the encyclopedia.

Yes indeed. I rang them and asked to buy a copy, but they insisted on sending a salesman round. He turned up - I'm not kidding - unannounced at 7.00 am on a Sunday morning and proceeded to do his level best to annoy me and worsen my hangover for about two hours. In the process he succeeded in making me understand for the first time that what I would get was not the gloriously elegant work of bygone years but in effect two different encyclopedias with a third useless volume, in pursuit of a value-killing re-design some fuckwit had recently come up with. Eventually as lunch loomed close, he reluctantly agreed that I could indeed give him the eye-wateringly excessive amount of money.

So for me it's the leading example of a product whose inherent appeal somehow triumphed over rational thinking and the disastrous mismanagement of the people who produced it.
posted by Segundus at 5:08 AM on March 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Bummed. But we do own a complete set of Childcraft I found at a yard sale for a dollar - it's from 1983 or so. My daughter digs some of the volumes. When she was 4 or so, she used to make me read her the part from the "All About Me" book about how babies grow in utero/get delivered every night for about a month.
posted by PuppyCat at 5:12 AM on March 14, 2012


Life before Google.
posted by Fizz at 5:34 AM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


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posted by But tomorrow is another day... at 5:37 AM on March 14, 2012


One of the minor pleasures is noting the strange characters and subjects that come up on the spine of a volume where the first and last entries are given - like Arizona Bolivar (a character in the mould of Indiana Jones, clearly an encyclopedia volume himself) or Geraniales Hume. But I never wanted to know any more about Conifer Ear Diseases.
posted by Segundus at 5:53 AM on March 14, 2012


I think the Britannica (or any encyclopedia) served the same purpose as a piano used to in many U.S. households: expensive shorthand for "education and culture are parts of the Good Life, which we have." This was a big deal for people whose parents worked in coal mines and had 8th grade educations. (Talking about my family here...) We had the yearbook subscription for a while, too, which I would turn to in a desultory manner every so often.

The piano got more use in my home than the Britannica, and that's not saying much: I always felt (misplacedly) guilty that I didn't use the encyclopedia more, but I got through school and college somehow. But it was nice to have that starting point for research in the house.

So I'll add my dot here. BTW, found a great article on the Irish Rebellion of 1798 on Wikipedia yesterday while looking for more info on the Dead Can Dance cover of "The Wind That Shakes The Barley."

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posted by Currer Belfry at 5:58 AM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I grew up with a late 1960s set of Brittanica and a 1970s set of The Book of Knowledge, and I do recall surfing through them the way you can now go down various rabbit holes on the internet. The sections on Egypt and Easter Island were well-thumbed.

My fondness for encyclopedias was destroyed by middle school research papers, which required us to go look stuff up in "trusted sources" and then write about it, but without editorializing or making inferences, and of course without plagiarizing... So it wasn't so much "research" as "figure out how to copy this article from the encyclopedia by rewording all of the sentences."
posted by usonian at 6:03 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


One of the minor pleasures is noting the strange characters and subjects that come up on the spine of a volume where the first and last entries are given - like Arizona Bolivar (a character in the mould of Indiana Jones, clearly an encyclopedia volume himself) or Geraniales Hume. But I never wanted to know any more about Conifer Ear Diseases.

"Chicago Death" is the one reason why I have always avoided that particular city.
posted by run"monty at 6:07 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was an encyclopedia reader from an early age. We had the World Book 1960, and I spent years inside it. Then one day I was nosing around the basement and found a complete set of the 11th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. It apparently belonged to my grandfather. We moved it up to my bedroom and my father built a cabinet for it. I still have the set and the cabinet. It was once one of my proudest possessions, but I just don't use it anymore.

Favorite parts:
-The common use of not only Latin but Greek words and phrases as explanations. If you had an EB, you of course knew Greek. In fact, this is where I learned what little Greek I know.
-The combined dedication to William Howard Taft and HM George V.
-The section on Heraldry. It's way better and more extensive than the Wiki entry (although the hyperlinks were harder to use).
-Detailed explanations of all kinds of specialized technologies. That sort of detail was not really available to me elsewhere in 1969. It's what I love about Google now.
-Nude sculptures...hmmmm.

The 11th edition is really a wonderful time capsule. It was from a time when we knew everything. It was just before Einstein et al. blew the basement out from under physics. An interesting look back to when the white race was obviously superior.
posted by MtDewd at 6:10 AM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


It was all downhill after the Eleventh edition, I suppose. I have a set (bound in original full frog) and it's one of my favorite ways to waste time.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:02 AM on March 14, 2012


The 11th edition is really a wonderful time capsule.

Indeed yes, and worth a post of its own. Failing that, some links.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:06 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is out of date, taz isn't in the Moderation section.

What are you talking about There's no moderator named taz. I checked Wikipedia.


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posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:31 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one waiting for a print version of Wikipedia?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:34 AM on March 14, 2012


I have a World Book set from 1963. It's a time capsule of the way things were, the way things were seen and what folks "knew" in 1963. As such, for me, it's priceless. Also, they're beautiful books with great typography and design, and the binding quality is second-to-none; after fifty years my set shows little wear.

Growing up our family dinners were punctuated by cries of "look it up!" with the person who raised an informational issue dispatched to fetch the appropriate volume and then read aloud the entry.

As the years passed, I loved pulling out a random volume and browsing through it looking for anything that caught my eye.

It's true that the Internet offers far more information, and certainly more timely information, than those old books had, but the experience is different: more targeted, less random. As such it can be frustrating to the casual browser who's just plain looking for something interesting to harness their attention. (Thank heavens for Metafilter, as it's now my main source for brain candy and the occasional meal.)

That said, Brittanica was put forth as the gold standard for reference books when I was a kid. It had less pictures than the World Book and was thus less fun and not as engaging. If it really does mean to stay current, the limitations of paper publishing pretty much forced this issue. That, and cost.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:59 AM on March 14, 2012


> We had a Britannica growing up, but I never felt particularly fond of it.

We had one growing up (the 1964 edition, with the two-volume dictionary they had in those days), and I loved it to pieces. I always thought I'd be fighting with my brothers over it when the time came. When my father died a few years ago, none of us wanted it. Sic transit gloria!

Also, for years I regretted not having gotten a set of the Eleventh Edition (still the greatest encyclopedia ever printed—the article on anarchism was by Kropotkin!) when I saw it for sale for fifty bucks; a few years ago I saw a number of sets at a library sale for nominal prices, and I thumbed through a couple of volumes nostalgically and moved on. It's online now.
posted by languagehat at 8:06 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I still have my grandfather's 1911 set, displayed proudly. I'm almost sad that all of its content is all online now.

I didn't realize just how long ago 1911 was until I looked up Nicholas II and the entry began "Nicholas II (1868-), emperor of Russia..."
posted by dfan at 8:09 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


.

I have memories of spending hours as a kid, excitedly looking up random things in our old family set, and always running out of fingers as placeholders.

I was just talking with my siblings about what to do with the set, after our dad passed away last year. We were thinking of donating or selling them at a yard sale, but I think we'll hold onto it now.
posted by raztaj at 8:24 AM on March 14, 2012


Is there a site online somewhere that collects the spine First - Last labels across different editions?
posted by codacorolla at 9:34 AM on March 14, 2012


The 11th edition is really a wonderful time capsule.

I guess. Other than Misinforming a Nation. I own a copy of EB1911, mostly for the leather smell. Occasionally pick up a tomb weighing 7 lbs, flip open one of the bible sheet pages, read something a shake my head why I keep the damned thing around. It's a fetish of the intellectual arcane.
posted by stbalbach at 10:39 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one waiting for a print version of Wikipedia?

Not me. I can't even imagine how irritating it'd be to have random folks breaking into my house all the time to scribble things in the margins and tear out pages they don't like.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:09 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a fetish of the intellectual arcane.
Yup. That's why I keep mine.

I didn't realize just how long ago 1911 was until I looked up Nicholas II and the entry began "Nicholas II (1868-), emperor of Russia..."
I have a dictionary or 2 that list Dwight Eisenhower in the Biography section as "President of Columbia University".

full frog ?
Mine's green. Is that all that means, or is it more derogatory?
posted by MtDewd at 11:16 AM on March 14, 2012


I have a dictionary or 2 that list Dwight Eisenhower in the Biography section as "President of Columbia University".

I used to make fun of my parents' ancient atlas because it depicted Germany as one country instead of two. They had the last laugh. (They still have it.)
posted by dfan at 11:29 AM on March 14, 2012


It's about time! When I was junior high school 30 yrs ago, even then I knew it was worthless. Unless you aspired to be a C student.
posted by honey badger at 11:36 AM on March 14, 2012


What this means is that the value of the old sets are going to go up. Look at all these nostalgia freaks on this thread. Yes, I'll sell you a 2010 edition of Britannica alright...for $2 Million dollars.....HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH.
posted by storybored at 12:11 PM on March 14, 2012


From the NYT article, on veracity:
But one widely publicized study, published in 2005 by Nature, called into question Britannica’s presumed accuracy advantage over Wikipedia. The study said that out of 42 competing entries, Wikipedia made an average of four errors in each article, and Britannica three. Britannica responded with a lengthy rebuttal saying the study was error-laden and “completely without merit.”

The Nature article is behind a paywall, unfortunately.

The Britannica's entry on the Masters was written by Arnold Palmer. So much for expertise! Wikipedia would have allowed Nicklaus to edit his entry.

And it would be better for it. Well, after the inevitable third, fourth, and fifth rounds of edits and counter-edits and talk-page callouts.

(It's worth noting that there's a fair amount of the 11th Edition's DNA in Wikipedia, which I think is kind of neat.)
posted by kagredon at 12:17 PM on March 14, 2012


Am I the only one waiting for a print version of Wikipedia?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:34 AM


Dances, they have a print version of Wikipedia. It's called writing on the bathroom wall. Zing!
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:47 PM on March 14, 2012


Did you just have a conversation with yourself?
posted by Burhanistan at 12:58 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh yes the good old days... wanting to know something and it wasn't in one of my paperback encyclopaedias (or atlases or other ref books we had) of writing it down on a piece of paper and next time I was in the library of looking it up in Britannica. Kids these days etc etc

Though I do remember using some yearbooks the library had fairly recently (well post internet) as the info I wanted did not appear to on the internet at the time, or at least not easy to find
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:13 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd like it if someone started making monthly prints of popular websites, just so people have something to read in the event of a solar flare taking out the latter half of 20th plus 21st century technology.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:28 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did you just have a conversation with yourself?

It just seemed Wikipedia-like to do that. (I have a strange sense of humor.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:49 PM on March 14, 2012


> When I was junior high school 30 yrs ago, even then I knew it was worthless.

It's OK, we're all pretty ignorant in junior high.
posted by languagehat at 1:56 PM on March 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


My parents had the 1968 set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I wasn't conscious of it's presence in our home until after we had moved back to Pakistan. When the shipping container of our belongings finally arrived, and this gorgeous set of books was up on the shelf, I decided that I should read the encyclopedia from beginning to end. I was seven or eight at the time, and I had not yet made the acquaintance of indexes, so the first volume was really frustrating. Also gorgeous, because that's where the atlas was, too. It occurs to me that my love of maps may have been born there.

Anyway, I remember being totally confused. I remember my elder sister teasing me mercilessly for not understanding the concept of a reference book. I knew how to look words up in a dictionary, but this was clearly different. There were all these articles about everything! My dad somehow came to hear of my endeavour, and taught me how to use the index. And explained encyclopedias.

I remember being utterly fascinated by the color plates of the human anatomy. They were transparencies, that you could remove one by one, revealing a different system of the human body at every layer.

When I started using the set as a real reference, I quickly became annoyed with it. This book didn't even know that humans had already landed on the moon! The annoyance was gradually replaced with affectionate amusement, but I started seeing it as a source for information about things that hadn't changed much since the 60s. A lot of history. Some literature. And then the two came together.

One of my favourite memories of my teenage years is from when I was taking O level English Literature, and Orwell's Animal Farm was one of the set texts. O level literature courses require you to study two or three texts over the course of two years. Needless to say, you get to know them thoroughly. One of our tasks was to identify parallels in the novel with the actual events of the Russian revolution. It became a bit of creative detective work, and particularly fascinating when the novel proved to be prophetic, apparently foretelling events that happened after Orwell's death. So I picked up one volume after another, following cross reference after cross reference. When my mother came to call me for dinner, she found me sprawled on the carpet in my room, with something like twenty of the twenty-three volumes opened all around me.

Going down the rabbit hole - I first experienced that with the Britannica. The funny thing is, I stopped liking it for that very reason. I had fallen in love with the rabbit hole, and the Britannica insisted on doing its job of providing detailed overviews.

I know the information it provided is so much easier to access now. But something about that ease, perhaps, means that I'm more likely to skim than to read a whole article. And a part of me still hankers for that goal of going through and reading the encyclopedia cover to cover.

RIP old friend.
posted by bardophile at 2:09 PM on March 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'd like it if someone started making monthly prints of popular websites, just so people have something to read in the event of a solar flare taking out the latter half of 20th plus 21st century technology.

I think this is going to happen. Why? because we are so massively unprepared to deal with it, and everyone knows that’s pretty much a guarantee of disaster coming.

It is disconcerting to see how quickly practical, long proven tools and technologies are being totally abandoned for the new and shiny. I love the internet and have spent most of the last 20 years on computers to make my living and my hobbies. But it’s all so fragile and could be gone in the blink of an eye. People lived for thousands of years without electricity, much less electronic devices, but now there would be bodies piling up in the streets if the electricity went out. Of course an encyclopedia set is not going to be my first concern at that point. But I think we should be careful about being so dependent.

When I was younger I would read things like A Canticle for Leibowitz and think how unlikely it seemed that our civilization could just fall apart, as I get older I think it doesn’t seem unlikely at all.
posted by bongo_x at 3:45 PM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Understandable, but still very sad. My parents have the 1959 edition and I loved looking through it while my Mom took a nap. It is housed in a 2-level custom bookcase of very nice wood, but the only use it gets these days is holding the recent newspapers until they get put out with the recycling. Kind of like an old dog who really can't run any more, but patiently lets the young pups roughhouse on top of him.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:51 PM on March 14, 2012


kagredon:
(It's worth noting that there's a fair amount of the 11th Edition's DNA in Wikipedia, which I think is kind of neat.)"

Neat, or a kind of virus. There was a window in Wikipedia's early years when the culture encouraged wholesale import of EB1911 content simply to fill up empty article space. Many of these articles never really developed beyond that, other than clean up of prose and syntax, because they are ridged and difficult to expand on. I think had people known Wikipedia would be so successful there wouldn't have been a rush to import old essays but leave it blank and wait for a fresh start.
posted by stbalbach at 4:57 PM on March 14, 2012


Um, am I the only one that noticed the first post? "It must be at least 15 years since I have picked up an encyclopedia, not counting when I was in jail and cut out pictures from the 1946 World Book Encyclopedia, or somesuch, to make Mother's Day cards for my mom and (at the time future) mother-in-law."

They let you cut up books in jail?!?!

Back on topic, every time the Internet puts more books out of business, I wonder what will happen if some giant technological disaster occurs and wipes out the entire Internet and every single saved written thing. Then we'll have lost everything. Yeah, I know, obviously there is no need for this any more whatsoever, EXCEPT for a printed backup, but still.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:17 PM on March 14, 2012


I think had people known Wikipedia would be so successful there wouldn't have been a rush to import old essays but leave it blank and wait for a fresh start.

I'm a bit skeptical of this — what evidence do we have to suggest that the average Wikipedia article that's created from whole cloth by contributors is better than the average article from EB11? On subjects where EB11 isn't horribly out of date, e.g. modern science topics, I suspect they are very high quality compared to what you'd get if you left it solely up to Internet contributors, unless the topic happens to be high profile and attract a lot of contributions and edits.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:25 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is disconcerting to see how quickly practical, long proven tools and technologies are being totally abandoned for the new and shiny

Perhaps it shows my analog side-but I agree.
posted by Isadorady at 9:31 PM on March 14, 2012


It is disconcerting to see how quickly practical, long proven tools and technologies are being totally abandoned for the new and shiny

Yes, and there are large parts of the world where the new technologies are simply unusable, still. Granted, there's a lot of illiteracy in those areas, too, and people there generally wouldn't have the resources to purchase Encyclopedia Britannica, but I can't help remembering the final episode in my parents' 1968 set's life. In 2006, we donated it to a charitable school in Lahore. They were grateful.

The thing that worries me most about the giving up of something like print is that electronic media are so incredibly format-bound. If you don't have the right reading equipment, the media becomes totally useless. This is so fundamentally different from the relatively universal accessibility of print. I can read my grandmother's letters, and her household ledger. Will my grandchildren be able to read mine? The gathering of social history is going to become harder, not easier, as we develop these technologies and abandon the previous generation.

Also, I still miss that atlas.
posted by bardophile at 10:34 PM on March 14, 2012


I have a dictionary or 2 that list Dwight Eisenhower in the Biography section as "President of Columbia University".

I used to make fun of my parents' ancient atlas because it depicted Germany as one country instead of two. They had the last laugh. (They still have it.)


I made fun of my Great Grandmother for having an astronomy textbook that didn't list Pluto among the known planets...

...she died.
posted by run"monty at 3:25 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


sourwookiee: Don't forget that Carl Sagan penned the Brittanica entry for "life". If that ain't the definition of "class act" I don't know what it.

And he or someone else managed to slip in a sly reference to another encyclopedia:

A visitor from another planet, judging from the enormous number of automobiles on Earth and the way in which cities and landscapes have been designed for the special benefit of motorcars, might well believe that automobiles are not only alive but are the dominant life-form on the planet.

posted by kagredon at 11:58 PM on March 15, 2012


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