The announcement this week that the 2010 print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica would be its last caused a flurry of media interest. Most commentators expressed regret, but weren’t surprised by the decision. The publishers of Britannica, as well as those of many other encyclopedias and reference guides, have been moving to digital versions for many years – a quick look at Toronto Public Library’s list of online databases reveals just how much information is at your fingertips.
And yet... there was something wonderful about seeing those imposing, leather bound books on a shelf. The digital version offers convenience of access to many users in many places at the same time [no longer will you go to do your research on Ecuador and find that the 'E' volume is nowhere to be found]. What will be lost is the ability to browse a set from a specific date and know that, at that point in time, these books represent the sum of man's knowledge about history, geography, science, literature and art.
Toronto Reference Library has a wonderful collection of older versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica in its stacks, including both editions pictured above.
Our earliest set is the third edition, from 1797. I went to look up the entry on Canada and was surprised that there was none until it occurred to me that there was no Canada then. But, we are there in 1902!