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Encyclopedia Britannica: A relic that shaped interest in reading and research

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Summary

  • The Encyclopedia Britannica is of Scottish birth.
  • Its first edition appears in 1771.
  • Its interesting and rather chequered history occupies some three pages of the present (11th) edition, and shows its intimate connection with the land of its birth until the reprint of the ninth edition issued by The Times in 1898.

Growing old can be such a wonderful experience if you allow yourself to reflect objectively and passionately. But you need to be able to laugh at yourself and wonder at some of the things you did in the past and, in equal measure, pat yourself on the back for some of those flashes of brilliance. This comes with a certain level of maturity and hindsight.

The more I look back in my past, the more I begin to understand that what I am doing in my old age, and enjoying very much if I may add, is not an accident, although it started literally by accident.

In 1966, my father bought a complete set of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for our family home at Karugu Estate, a small coffee farm in Ruiru. This was a burgundy-coloured, 20 volume set which seemed to fit in very well with the furniture in the sitting room. With the benefit of hindsight, this is when my interest in reading and research began.

While everybody else was out playing during the holidays, I would immerse myself in the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica in a quest for knowledge especially of how things worked and those far off places in the world that we were not taught about in the normal school curriculum.

I also began to read magazines and periodicals such as the National Geographic, Readers Digest and Look and Learn. I enjoyed impressing my friends with the most off the beaten path titbits of knowledge.

In an article published on February 2, 1911, Nature magazine describes the Encyclopedia Britannica as “A dictionary of arts, science, literature, and general information.

The Encyclopedia Britannica is of Scottish birth. Its first edition appears in 1771. Its interesting and rather chequered history occupies some three pages of the present (11th) edition, and shows its intimate connection with the land of its birth until the reprint of the ninth edition issued by The Times in 1898.

Under the same auspices the 11th volume supplement to the ninth edition was issued, and, together with that edition, formed the 10th, in 1902, and it is not a little curious to observe that the impression created by that issue appears to have been so strong that few realise off-hand that the present edition has occupied eight years in the making.

Its preparation continued to be conducted from the office of The Times until 1909, when the rights of publication were taken over by the Cambridge University Press, a step generally acknowledged to be peculiarly appropriate to the character of the work.

It is proposed in the present general notice to consider some of the most notable characteristics of the work, such as distinguish it from former editions and from other works of reference. For that it possesses such characteristics cannot be questioned; the new edition shows evidence of much more than a simple reliance upon traditional form.”

First issued in 1768, Britannica has its origins in Edinburgh. It was published by Colin Macfarquhar (1744-1793), a printer, and engraver Andrew Bell (1725-1809).

The first edition was in 100 weekly parts, which eventually took three years to produce, and when completed in 1771 it consisted of three volumes. The preface of the first edition, which observation still remains in use today was “Utility ought to be the principle of every publication.”

Modern science and Scottish identity were the two themes of the first edition. Articles were sometimes a bit lengthy, often running to more than 100 pages. By the second edition Britannica was issued in 10 volumes, by the third in 18 volumes, and in 20 volumes after that.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has always retained contributors who are eminent in their fields including Nobel Prize laureates.

In March 2012, the world received the news that the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica would stop producing hardbound, paper copies of their venerable reference.

The company continued to publish online, selling their products to individuals, schools, and libraries. In some respects that was good because the web is much more easily updated, more interactive, and can deliver motion, sound, and colour simultaneously. In other respects that is not so good, particularly for young readers, older folks, immigrants, and technophobes who would rather read a book.

Britannica’s decision was in so many ways a milestone along the way to the new world of the 21st century. In the mid-20th century, a set of Britannicas on the shelf was a status symbol: a sign that the family had money, taste, some pretense to intelligence, or at least a very strong desire to be seen that way. Other families had the World Book, Colliers, or Encyclopedia America and Annual yearbooks.

Wikipedia has largely replaced those printed volumes, principally because it is free. The fact that it is not written, edited, or monitored by content matter experts seems to be of little concern. Crowd-sourcing has replaced experts and, though not good, the accuracy quotient of Wikipedia seems to be improving.

We now have to live with the notion that all knowledge is available at the click of a button. However, looking forward to the world that our children and their children will live in does not simply mean ­abandoning technology that seems anachronistic. It means preserving the best of what we know and making it accessible to everyone.

I believe that set of burgundy hardcover Encyclopedia Britannica is somewhere in our family archives!