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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Encyclopedic memories: Britannica bytes it

Posted by on 03.22.12 at 08:57 AM

Happier times . . .
  • Happier times . . .
The Encyclopedia Britannica announced earlier this month that it will no longer publish printed editions. Publicly, the encyclopedia shrugged off its decision. “The end of the print set is something we’ve foreseen for some time,” said president Jorge Cauz, and the Britannica news release said "Cauz emphasized that numerous digital versions of the encyclopedia—as well as other Britannica databases for all ages—are widely available, continuously updated and significantly larger than the content in the printed encyclopedia."

So we needn't mourn.

But I was just reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the intractable troubles between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The NYRB has never shrunk from footnotes, and Wheatcroft offers one to help along a point he's making: which is that although a century ago "there was no Palestine" (as Newt Gingrich insists is still true today), and there was no one alive who would describe himself as a Palestinian, "national consciousness" comes when it comes. Two centuries ago, a man "from a village near Bratislava or Ljubljana" would not have known "he was a Slovak or a Slovene.*"

The asterisk takes us to the footnote.

*It's significant that most people did not so much as know the names by which we now know what are today the capital cities of member states of the European Union: the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has no entries for "Bratislava" or "Ljubljana," though both cities are fully described under "Pressburg" ("Poszony" in Hungarian) and "Laibach," the German forms of those place-names.

The (actually) 1910—or 11th—edition, the last to be published before the encyclopedia moved to Chicago—is famous for its scholarship and for the luster of its contributors. But one other thing can be said for it: it preserved in amber the world as the English-speaking intelligentsia understood it on the eve of World War I.

In a paean to the 11th edition published in the New Yorker in 1981, Hans Koning wrote:

In 1910, Anglo-Saxon self-confidence and self-satisfaction were unshakable. In that year, as the world was seen from the green quadrangles of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, not only the British Empire and the United States but all of humanity appeared to be on the threshold of being totally understood, described, improved, and then perfected, through the logic of Anglo-American institutions and thought. Thanks to modern techniques, which was to say the latest rotary presses, making it possible for the first time to produce all the volumes of a Britannica virtually in one rush—instead of spread out over years, as had been necessary in the past—a single editor-in-chief and his collaborators had captured this one point of view in its entirety, and presented it without so much as a blurring of the edges.

As as world view, it was the high point of the Enlightenment, and it came at the end . . . when the lights went out all over Europe in the fatal summer of 1914.

Koning added parenthetically, "(As a world view, it had also been—in words not thought of in its time—white-elitist enough to mitigate our regret at its passing.)" Koning ridiculed the 11th edition for its blind spots, prejudices, and self-satisfaction as heartily as he praised it. But a larger point is clear: if we can do without this vanished worldview, we should thank our lucky stars for the magnificent record of itself it left behind.

The next completely written-through edition (the 14th) of the Britannica wasn't published until 1929, the 15th (and last) not until 1974. After 1929, though, the Britannica revised itself annually, and in recent years, because of declining sales, every two years. However, online, says spokesperson Tom Panelas, "we make revisions many times a day every single day."

So there's no more amber? A set of encyclopedias that's always racing to catch up to itself doesn't have its feet planted anywhere. "We’re working on ways to preserve each digital version of the encyclopedia. We're thinking about it," says Panelas. "Certainly it's a matter of concern for us. The Britannica has been among other things a record of scholarship for its day, and we think it's important to continue that. Do we have every single version of the encyclopedia we’ve every published online? Probably not. And I'm not sure we’d need to have that. But it might be helpful to capture and freeze it every so often."

(For a related story from our archive, see 1995's "Britannica Bytes: Will the heavyweight of encyclopedias be a victor or victim of the digital revolution?" by Jeannette De Wyze.)

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