Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rule Britannica Gone!

I had an alert for this story from a source other than the two below. But having had a look round I have settled for these two separate offerings, both from Telegraph blogs as it happens.

Reflecting my own thoughts, I borrow the opening lines from both entries.

How did it last so long? That was the first question that flew into my mind . . . . The old order changeth, yielding place to new.

£1,200 per set, in answer to your question.

The dull but dependable Encyclopaedia Britannica bows to the digital facts of life

The encyclopaedia's entries on art and artists are conservative to a fault. It is as suspicious of new trends as a nervous vicar.
By Max Davidson
14 Mar 2012

How did it last so long? That was the first question that flew into my mind when I read that the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be printed in book form, and will be available in a digital edition only. I assumed its presses must have stopped rolling years ago, round about the time that Dame Edith Evans died.

The reference book, first published in Edinburgh in 1768, has many qualities, but dispensing up-to-the-minute information with colloquial pizzazz is not one of them.

As a boy in the 1960s, I had a complete set of the encyclopaedia, bound in funereal black leather, but even then its entries seemed dated: trustworthy but in a starchy, Victorian way.

I remember using it to research a school project about the American Civil War, cribbing whole sentences, the way a modern student would lift lines from Wikipedia, and my teacher’s acid comment in the margin – “Well written, but dull.” The only joke in the entire encyclopaedia was the fact that its first editor was Smellie.

Whether listing the capitals of the American states or explaining what happened at the Battle of Crécy, the Britannica plays it straight down the middle. Reader-friendliness is not in its repertoire. My sister tried selling copies door-to-door in the suburbs of Sydney in the 1970s and recalls being greeted with crisp Antipodean expletives of the kind you would never encounter in the encyclopaedia.

Very few reference books can boast such a distinguished roll-call of contributors, from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie, but the common touch has long eluded it. In the age of the pub quiz, when bite-sized facts are the dominant currency, the chunky, multi-volume Britannica feels like a luxury from a bygone age.

Still, it is only fair to salute a great British institution, as remarkable, in its way, as the Oxford English Dictionary. Rooted in the values of the Scottish Enlightenment, and kickstarted by scholars of energy and ambition, the encyclopaedia has run and run, weathering financial crisis after financial crisis, defying changing fashions in publishing.

Like the OED, it has appeared in many editions, been subject to constant revision, and had to reinvent itself for the internet age. Unlike the OED, it has strayed from its British roots, having been published in America since 1901.

But its founding principles – the collection and dissemination of accurate knowledge, about everything from Ancient Egypt to the laws of thermodynamics – have never altered. Generations of scholars and researchers have prepared new entries and updated old ones with an academic zeal that puts most reference books to shame.

The encyclopaedia has had its critics, small armies of them. Ever since the first edition contained the entry “Woman: The female of man”, it has struggled to convince women, not to mention racial and religious minorities, that it is interested in their story.

If it is generally sound on science – apart from the time a cocky early editor decided he knew more about gravity than Isaac Newton – its view of history has often been tainted by an anglo-centric bias. Its entries on art and artists are conservative to a fault. It is as suspicious of new trends as a nervous vicar.

But its strengths outweigh its weaknesses – as they have done for two and a half centuries. Now that the encyclopaedia is only going to be available online, it would not be surprising if the printed version enjoyed an afterlife as a prized literary antique, a relic of the good old days, when books were books, lovingly printed and bound, and you could read 500 pages without spotting an error.

The internet has informed more people about more subjects than would have seemed possible 20 years ago. But when knowledge is shared so easily and promiscuously, old-fashioned scholarship goes out of the window. The fact-checkers have been swept away by the tsunami of rumour and counter-rumour.

There are plenty of times I have read something on Wikipedia and thought, 'Well, that’s interesting, but is it TRUE?’ My hand twitches, I look to the bookshelf and wish I had kept my trusty boyhood companion – instead of selling it for twenty quid to buy a new stereo.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was never a page-turner. It told you about Venice or Monet or Chinese food. It did not make them seem exciting. But for sticklers of facts, not versions of facts, it had a kind of poetry. Max Davidson Telegraph

The sad death of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

by Allan Massie

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

The lines from Tennyson’s “Morte D’Arthur” seem appropriate to the news that, after some 250 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be published in book form, but only electronically. Knowledge is, we are told, changing so fast that the printed version is quickly out-of -date, while it is easy to correct or amend the online one. The argument is plausible, but spurious. The interpretation of what we know may shift, and new facts may sometimes be unearthed, but the bulk of knowledge endures. I would guess that the vast majority of articles in the Britannica remain authoritative; and this indeed is true of earlier editions such as the ninth, known as “the scholars’ edition” and the eleventh, the last to be published in Britain (though already American-owned). The real reason for abandoning the print edition is that it has become too expensive to produce and sales have been declining. So we have come to the end of an old song.

The Encyclopaedia dates from the 18th-century Enlightenment. In France, Diderot enlisted the services of scholars and “savants” to produce his compendium of universal knowledge, the Encyclopédie. The Britannica was almost simultaneously conceived and brought to birth in an alley called Anchor Close off the High Street of Edinburgh. Its progenitor was a printer called William Smellie (pronounced Smiley), and he published it in three volumes in 1771. The idea took hold, and soon a second edition was in preparation. This was edited by the extraordinary James Tytler, who wrote much of its ten volumes himself; it appeared between 1777 and 1784. He was well-equipped for the huge task, being a chemist, surgeon, printer, poet, political agitator and hack-journalist who also, by way of diversion, manned the first hot-air balloon ascent made in Britain, in Edinburgh in 1784 – perhaps to celebrate the completion of his work on the Encyclopaedia.

Third and fourth editions soon followed, the latter expanded to 20 volumes. It was then bought by Archibald Constable, whom Sir Walter Scott called “the Napoleon of publishers”. Constable was responsible for the next two editions. In 1827 when he was ruined in the financial crash which also brought Scott down, he sold it to A & C Black, who continued to publish it in Scotland till they removed their headquarters to London. Black sold it to American interests, and the first edition published in the USA appeared in 1921. Before then the American owners had embarked on the practice of door-to-door selling, a dispiriting task often undertaken by poor students and impoverished graduates.

I have never owned a set of the Britannica, though I should like to have one of the eleventh edition, over which I pored for many hours in my school library more than half a century ago. The leather binding spoke of authority, the print was beautifully clear, and the articles as lucid and elegant as they were informative. Even today I suppose that many of the historical ones retain their value. The scientific ones will be out-of-date, of course, yet still interesting and useful as evidence of the best that was known when they were written.

It’s sad to think that there will be no more of these solid volumes, but that’s the way the world is going, and fewer and fewer works of reference will appear in hard copy. A & C Black, the former proprietors of the Britannica, now invite people to update their “Who’s Who” entry online, and probably most people who consult the latest revision of the Dictionary of National Biography probably do so on the screen. Allan Massie Telegraph

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