It’s not goodbye, it’s au revoir


by - March 15th, 2012


It’s the end of an icon. The 2010 print set of the Encyclopædia Britannica will be the last one they make. After 244 years,  and with more than 7 million sets sold, the 2010 print edition will be the last set to grace the shelves as the iconic reference books move completely to the digital format.

It’s been in production since 1768 when it was published in Edinburgh as three volumes. It was in print before Captain Cook laid eyes on Australia. When 1900 rolled in, it was on its ninth edition. It has covered the American War of Independence, the Irish 1916 Rising, and World Wars 1 and 2 as contemporary matters. And when sales peaked in 1990 (when it sold 120,000 printed sets) it was just twenty years from being pushed out of print forever.

I am admiring their attitude, it must be said. They printed 12,000 sets in 2010 and, with a third of those $1,299 sets yet to be sold, they are switched from discussing over-stock to shilling these remaining sets as a collector’s item.

The 2010 print set is the final edition and will be available at the Britannica Shop only while stocks last!  Don’t miss this final opportunity to own one of the most important printed reference collections of all time. Supplies are limited, so order yours before it is too late. In short, it’s a magnificent collection to grace your home or office library.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite rainy day activities was to pull down a book from the encyclopedia set in our house and read randomly through the articles. Even when I was a child, these books were impressively old – one of my parents had had them as a kid so when I used them for reference my school projects tended to be slightly uninformed by anything that happened after 1950 or so. Lying on the floor, reading in a fort made of reference books, allowing my eyes to wander the pages and randomly discover new topics, from aavarks to how to use an abacus, from tree-kangaroos to trepanation.

There were several things that irked me about them, it’s true. The darn things were heavy and putting them all back up on the high shelf wasn’t easy. They were missing a volume, so I would never know what lurked between In and J. And, for all those people who insist on going on about the smell of old books being like vanilla (if that is what you think vanilla smells like, I never want to eat your baking), these ones smelled of must, dust and a hint of sharpness that my father informed me with glee was probably mouse pee.

Mouse pee is not, of course, an issue with my new e-reader. And I love my new e-reader. I love that it can download a book in moments, and has already downloaded 80 of them. I love that I can usually get a few pages preview for free before committing to buy books (and that, believe me, has saved me from a few blunders). I am excited about the fact that I can take twenty new books on holiday in a space the size of a small novella, that I could – if I choose to – some day haul the full weight of the Encyclopædia Britannica itself – all 44 million words of it, on 32,640 pages – around in my handbag without risking even the smallest shoulder strain.

And it’s not like the books are going out of business – the Encyclopædia Britannica lives on in digital form and the company is showing turning a profit (85% of its revenue comes from the largely digital education market). They will continue to produce, amoungts other things, the Britannica Book of the Year each year, a reference guide to all the events of the year in question. And, as they point out, this move will actually allow the reference books to increase in size. Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, said in an interview with the Guardian, “Today our digital database is much larger than what we can fit in the print set. And it is up to date because we can revise it within minutes anytime we need to, and we do it many times each day.”

But a part of me – a small part, forever sprawled on the bedroom floor, surrounded by a mountain of books – mourns the passing of those wonderful leather bound books that used to fascinate me so on those rainy afternoons indoors.

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