Have you heard the news? The Encyclopedia Britannica is stopping the presses (see: changing marketplace.) No doubt this is quite the blow to Britannica employees and door-to-door salesmen (see: Fuller Brush, Willy Loman.) But perhaps this is actually not all bad news.
The encyclopedia had a hallowed place in many homes and hearts. The (wonderful) film Ball of Fire (1941) updated the 7 dwarfs and their mighty leader, Gregory Peck, into encyclopedia wizards. The quirky little brainiacs toiled for years, documenting every subject known to humankind. It was a noble undertaking, and one made all the more enjoyable with the arrival of Barbara Stanwyck. For decades, real-life families across the country paid for one volume of encyclopedic knowledge at a time. The books; with their hard covers and lush pages, were displayed with pride in living rooms and dens. For better or worse, schoolchildren used these volumes to complete homework assignments. Those without (and there were/are plenty of those) made the trip to the library or relied on source material (a.k.a. parents) or turned in homework destined for less than an “A.”
Encyclopedias are a great source for cursory understanding of a subject, but there are now so many more of those. With a few keystrokes endless source materials are at our fingertips. Students (and others) can go directly to the U.S. government sites or the American Medical Association. The very act of searching (a.k.a. researching) broadens the understanding of a subject.
Will some people confuse wikipedia with an authoritative (and fully vetted) source? They already do. Does the cessation of printing encyclopedias put disadvantaged students at a disadvantage? Not in this day and age. It’s a pretty safe bet that if a library has an up-to-date version of the encyclopedia on the shelves, they have computers and access to the internet as well. I would posit that the elimination of the printed encyclopedia evens the playing the field a bit for students, if it weren’t for the fact that having them in the home is no longer a sign of special access to information.
Why is it even worth note you ask (assuming you don’t work in the printing or door-to-door sales professions?) For the simplest of reasons: progress is sometimes quite progressive. The shuttering of a theatre, restaurant or nightclub to make way for a food court or Sephora, is not progress, it’s just sad. The erosion of demarcation between public space and private space is not progress, it just means I have to throw my body over my entree as the woman at the next table styles her hair. The memory of salesmen, diaper service, milk delivery, Sheriff Taylor and his son Opie, fill us with a warmth and sense of safety. Change (and growing pains) are always just a bit frightening and our instincts are to cling to vestiges of the past. For proof, one need only witness an adolescent girl’s bedroom festooned with equal parts stuffed animals and mascara.
There once was a dizzying amount of New York (daily) newspapers, some of them having more than one edition a day. It took awhile, but with technology we have that once again. The insatiable human desire for information is part of our charm. As long as our innovations keep pace with that need, we can say farewell to the past without too much angst. For those who will miss those smooth, hefty burgundy books, just consider how much fun you’ll have convincing children that you used to have to walk to the library (in the snow, uphill, both ways) to learn who invented the printing press.
*Sonny Bono (1967)