Burning the Britannica

Photo of the 11th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica by Stewart Butterfield via Flickr

Burning the Britannica

Print encyclopedias once occupied a privileged cultural position—even if owners seldom consulted them.

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2m 17sec

What is an encyclopedia worth? In its heyday, advertisers insisted that the Encyclopedia Britannica was invaluable, especially for young minds. “You should give your child as many tools for success as possible,” a Britannica advertisement in a British newspaper advised in 1983. “Especially a fine encyclopedia.”

And what a fine one it is: 44 million words, 30,000 pages, all the world’s knowledge on topics from the aardvark to Zoroastrianism. Julian Baggini, founding editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, was lucky enough to own all 32 volumes. Then he resolved to burn them.

Baggini acted partly out of necessity, he explains in Aeon Magazine. He could find no room for the hulking volumes, which weighed four pounds each. Libraries, schools, and secondhand booksellers evinced no interest in them. Eventually the books were relegated to plastic storage boxes kept outside, where they attracted mold and muck. Baggini decided that only a bonfire could end the books’ waterlogged suffering, “both a funeral pyre to mourn the positive ideals they represented, and a celebration of the good things that superseded them.”

How far the Britannica has fallen. In the 20th century, British families frequently broke the bank to own copies. Using funds normally earmarked for a telly or a sofa set, working-class households paid door-to-door salesmen on installment—known in English slang as the “never-never.”

Decades ago the books were sold as a tool to enlarge young minds, but modern Britannica admen convinced buyers that owning an encyclopedia would ensure worldly success for their children. The spin doctors called it “the Britannica Advantage.”

In reality, kids seldom consulted the imposing volumes. Parents “would have been better off spending half that money or less on books with beginnings, middles, and ends that children might actually read.”

Print encyclopedias themselves had undeniable flaws. A fair portion of their contents was instantly obsolete, and they were products of an era in which a select few served as the gatekeepers and guardians of knowledge.

It’s different these days. Even Britannica offers vast bodies of information at a fire-sale price: Monthly access to a constantly updated Web corpus starts at $1.99. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. announced that the print encyclopedia would be phased out.

The 32-volume print version did have a major advantage: It set a solid standard of legitimate knowledge, however rigid and ossified. “It’s hard to say which is worse,” Baggini writes, “an excessive deference to a small cultural elite or a hubbub of cyberchatter in which everyone feels not only entitled to an opinion but to a grateful audience for it.”

THE SOURCE: “Bibliocide” by Julian Baggini, in Aeon Magazine, March 6, 2013.


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