Encyclopedia Britannica: The end of its shelf life

Its current print run will be its last ever. John Walsh mourns the end of 244 years of bourgeois self-improvement

It's a sad day for fetishists of gold lettering. It's a bitter blow for door-to-door salesmen. It's a major frustration for recently nominated godparents wondering what christening gift would combine the solid, the stylish and the edifying. The print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is no more.

The company has announced that henceforth it will concentrate on their online encyclopaedias, and that the last-ever print edition – a mighty, 32-volume set weighing 129 pounds – won't be replaced when the last 8,000 sets are finally sold.

Devotees of reference books have seen the writing on the wall – sorry, the characters on the digital screen – for some time. They've watched as the hungry maw of the internet gobbles up sales of dictionaries, thesauruses and "companions," and the Wikipedia site has become – in a single decade – the only destination for seekers after factual knowledge of both humanities and science subjects.

But what a rich history has been lost with the end of these great heavy tombstones. They were first published in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771 and, by 1809, had grown from three volumes to 20. Noting the public's thirst for knowledge, the owners signed up eminent writers and subject experts, and started an unprecedented project of continuous revision. In the 20th century, the books hit the big time. Their American owners had the articles simplified for a wider market, and proceeded to flog them to everyone. Door-to-door salesmen, their car-boots straining under the weight of erudition, urged householders to invest in the 20-volume sets because they contained "the Sum of Human Knowledge." Sure they cost several hundred quid/dollars (they said) – but isn't your child's education worth the money?

The books became more handsome and striking – an array of spines that commandeered the family bookshelf like a brilliant army in smart, leatherette uniforms.

For the aspirant middle classes in England and America, they were often the first books the family owned. Were a child to ask its parents, in a piping treble, who Tutankhamun was or what was the capital of Paraguay, they'd be directed to "look it up" in the family Britannica. (It meant the parents could bypass the embarrassment of not knowing the answers.)

Sad to report, the books themselves weren't always right. Examples of the most egregious inaccuracies have howled down the centuries. The chief editor of the (1790s) third edition, one George Gleig, decided unilaterally that Newton was wrong about gravity and announced that it was, in fact, caused by "the classical element of fire." The 11th edition (in 1910-11) didn't think Marie Curie, who'd just won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to go with her Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, worthy of an entry, being a mere woman, but it gave her a name-check in the entry on her husband, Pierre.

Now that it's all available online, mistakes and out-of-date entries can be updated and revised at a moment's notice. It makes for more streamlined access to the Sum of Human Knowledge – but how sad to think it's brought down the curtain on 244 years of bourgeois self-improvement and directionless browsing.

Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Arts and Entertainment
Nicki Minaj's lyric video for 'Only' features Drake as the Pope, Minaj as a dictator and Chris Brown as an army leader

music 'It was inspired by Cartoon Network'

Arts and Entertainment
James Nesbit in The Missing on BBC 1

TV review

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    ‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
    Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

    Isis takes a big step back

    Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

    How to shop politically

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
    The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

    Sex on the brain

    Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection