I was in a second-hand bookshop the other day, and there was a small multivolume encyclopedia piled in the corner. Probably nobody had looked in that corner for months, and quite right too. Who needs an out-of-date encyclopedia?
Yet what was out of date about it was not just that it reported facts and opinions up to the time it was printed – perhaps thirty or forty years ago. What was far more fundamentally out of date was the approach behind it.
This was apparent on reading a review of a new book called Encyclopaedia Britannica: Everything Explained that is Explainable, by Denis Boyles (published 2016). Encyclopaedia Britannica! We’ve all heard of it, some of us may have used it, but it represents not just an out of print title, but a superseded way of thinking. If you want any confirmation, I went to Cambridge University Library last year and asked them where Encyclopaedia Britannica was in their reference department. The first librarian couldn’t find it … nor could his colleague. We eventually found it, after 20 minutes. Clearly, nobody in academia uses Britannica any longer.
Yet the statistics for the content and sales of the Encyclopaedia Britannica are astonishing. I should know, since I was involved in producing and selling encyclopedias for many years.
Boyles’ book is largely about the sales and marketing of EB, but for me that is only a small part of the story. We used to joke in the trade about sales of the Encyclopaedia that always included the bookshelf on which it would sit. It was well known (I have a Wikipedia reference to prove it) that door-to-door sales of encyclopedias have always been strong. There was a vague idea that by buying an encyclopedia, families would somehow become more knowledgeable. It was wittily stated that encyclopedias, like bibles in the 20th century, were more bought than read. To some extent, it didn’t really matter what was between the covers – the most important thing was that you had access to it if you needed it.
How has all this changed in the age of Wikipedia?
Firstly, sales of print encyclopedias have collapsed. For the most part, encyclopedias are no longer marketed. They key selling point of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, was that by some astounding sales technique the publishers managed to get the edition published by Cambridge University Press, no less, in the UK (although the Press no doubt had little or nothing to do with its compilation). There, in a sentence, is what EB represented: authority. With an impressive list of public intellectuals among its contributors, and the magical titles of Cambridge on the jacket, the product was not just an encylopedia but an entry to the world of letters.
Secondly, encyclopedias are no longer promoted by their roster of star contributors. This is not to say that authority does not continue to have a perceived value; simply that whereas Britannica was assumed to be authoritative, because it was Britannica, Wikipedia’s content needs to be assessed each time a reader consults it. I’d love to think that the world outside encyclopedias
Thirdly, Wikipedia has removed the role of the public intellectual. Boyles’ book describes the general editor, Hugh Chisholm (illustrated above), who managed the entire 10th edition and was general editor of the 11th edition. In later editions, this role was filled by Mortimer Adler (who was also responsible for the Britannica Great Books programme). Perhaps mercifully the idea of a clever man (it was always a man) guiding us in our thirst for knowledge has disappeared for ever. Of course, there was never any guarantee that a Nobel prize-winner would be able to communicate in accessible terms about his or her subject. So, to that extent, the working practice of Wikipedia, which has no named contributors, is about as much of a reversal as could be imagined. If Wikipedia continues the tradition of explanation and analysis, without assuming the content must be correct because of the author’s eminence, so much the better; trusting an encyclopedia because it is published by Oxford or Cambridge is a thing of the past. Perhaps.
Finally, I’d love to report that while Wikipedia is an encyclopedia for an age of trivia, while Britannica represented seriousness and gravitas, it no longer appears to be the case. When I looked up Hugh Chisholm on the Britannica site, there was indeed a useful article about him. But alongside his birth and death dates, there were hyperlinks to “other people born on February 22” and “other people who died on September 29”. Trivial indeed – and a peculiar homage to Wikipedia style.