One of the charity bookshops I work in had a donation of a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica at the weekend. I brought it all in and realised that I’d never handled a set despite having sold these when I worked for the company in the 1980s. The set seems, today in 2014, both weighty and quaint.
It’s weighty because it’s authoritatively written. It’s too much to go into the changing nature of knowledge here, but there’s a bedrock to most disciplines that changes little, while that which does change can still have historical interest. At the same time, it’s quaint to hold heavy books that have 2 index volumes instead of a search facility. They all have this solid thumping sound when closed. They press down on your lap with all that scholarly graft.
And these were domestic goods. People once wanted to own what was sold as ‘the library that never closes.’ This desire for ownership came from the aspiring upper-working / lower-middle classes that wanted to support their children’s futures and, perhaps more importantly, be seen to be providing this support by their peers. The Britannica was the ultimate bourgeois showpiece.
Its problem for many owners though was that it was used about as much as you’d expect when nobody in the family is on a course. Wider access to a university education has absorbed a lot of Britannica’s educational market share in recent years. Hardly surprising when a set like the one pictured will have set you back £1500 in its day in a range going from £1000 to £4000. Inevitably, the CD-ROM edition started to dent sales in the 1990s. The last print edition was published in 2010. You now purchase an online account to access its pages from a database, much like most services these days.
Or – OR – you can purchase one of these shelf-fillers online for around £100. The yearbooks look to be even more sought-after than the sets themselves. There’s something reassuring about handling these volumes. Watch anyone do it – just watch and count those seconds before they stroke the leather! It’s hard to say how they will retain their value with age. But a set like this feels and looks very different to a search bar.