2012-06-01 / Columns

Your Owen County Community Foundation

The Encyclopædia Britannica
by Mark Rogers
Executive Director

A few months ago Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. announced the discontinuation of the print edition of the august reference books first printed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768. This little news tidbit came across like so many others these days – as a proclamation that the world is changing whether you like it or not, old man. Well, I don’t like it. There! I triggered it again – Curmudgeon Alert!

My brothers, sisters and I were lucky enough to have grown up in a household with a set of the 1958 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (EB) that was bound in conservative maroon covers and dedicated, in furtherance of the aura of the publication, to Dwight David Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II. Everything that I remember about that set of valuable books is shaded by that aura. Even the use of the aesc grapheme ‘æ’ in the title (they don’t use it in the corporate name) convinced my impressionable little self that these were scholarly tomes to be admired and respected.

In pre-Internet society, the EB served as the center of knowledge (okay, right after Mom and Dad) for our home. The set supported the entire clan of Rogers’ in their academic studies and school report writing.

They were more than an academic reference, though. My brother Doug remembers sitting on a couple volumes at formal holiday dinners, so they helped raise him and my baby sister Amy even more than the rest of us. We also used the heavy books to anchor the corners of the blankets that made up our indoor forts (usually built to repel sister invasions, as I recall).

The EB seemed to be the entire collection of human knowledge to me as I grew and learned from them. The first 153 pages of the first volume is a list of the many contributors and their academic bona fides that helped me appreciate a little more the huge frontier of knowledge that awaited me when I finally finished elementary school.

I even remember feeling a bit put-upon because we had the EB at home and not the more kid friendly World Book. That feeling usually arose when I was rushing to finish a paper for school and realized that there was no way Mrs. Wolf, my fifth grade teacher, would fall for any plagiarized sentences in the stiff academic prose of the EB. The result was that I had to read and understand the entry so that I could paraphrase instead of copying. Tough life for a procrastinating fifth grader but what an aid to my education.

The total impact of the EB on my family seemed significant when I checked in with my siblings to compare our recollections. My sister Wendy remembers sitting on the floor and flipping through the pages until she came to entry for ballet and saw the photo of ballerina Maria Tallchief in her Swan Lake costume. She decided that day to become a ballerina... okay, she became a lawyer but the worlds of ballet, Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky, and classical music opened up to her in one photo.

My brother Gary remembered the Britannica salesman touting a special service that allowed new EB owners to contact the writers with any questions they had about the information collected in the massive set of books. He worked for months to find a question worthy of the scholars that he assumed were just waiting for his academic query. The question never materialized but what a learning experience for a smart kid hanging around in an old farm house with nothing to do.

I can think of many days where Doug and I would pore over those books looking first at the few color pages then straying into some other article close by. Looking at the flags of the world is my most distinct memory. I looked at it again while thinking about this column. The flag page is still there, complete with a spill stain, showing those brightly colored flags from the Viking flag circa A.D. 1000 to the scimitar emblazoned flag of Yemen.

It’s still difficult to pick up a volume without getting lost in the knowledge collected there. I had to brush up my segmented worms the other day when I realized the EB has 20 pages on “Annelida, the segmented worms, a major phylum in the animal kingdom.”

But all of that is just the reminiscing of an old guy. What’s my beef with discontinuing the print version of the old reliable EB? The Britannica Corporation only earns about one percent of their revenue from the printed encyclopedias. Why would I want to impede the march of technological progress? Well, I guess I don’t really want to halt progress. I just want to slow it down a bit. I want to ensure that when we move completely to a new medium that spontaneous learning opportunities are still readily available to our children. How can a couple of brothers building a fort out of boxes and blankets accidentally open a PC to the page that shows flags of the world and end up quizzing each other on flag origins all afternoon?

A much more significant percentage of the knowledge of the world is now available online but how do we know the source? The first 153 pages of the web do not identify who collected the data that we are sifting through for our school reports. I could at least cite the 1958 Encyclopædia Britannica, volume number and article name. We will have to learn how to confirm the accuracy and reliability of online material that may be here today and gone tomorrow. As my brother Gary said as he expressed satisfaction with his Kindle and simultaneous frustration that you can’t flip through the pages – it’s a dilemma. Guess us curmudgeons will have to learn to live with it. Maybe some, but I got the EB when I bought the homeplace. I’ll just stick to the facts as they stood in 1958. It was good enough for Ike and the Queen.

Your Owen County Community Foundation is committed to helping our communities become better places to live, grow, and work. We value our children and want to help them succeed and be safe.

If your OCCF can help you with an idea to support education in Owen County, give me a call at 829-1725, email me at mark@owencountycf.org, visit us online at www.owencountycf.org, or stop by and see us in person at 201 West Morgan Street in Spencer (second floor of the Owen County State Bank building).



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