The Reassuring Thump of Encyclopaedia Volumes

A full 32-volume Britannica, secondhand

A full 32-volume set with a 1988 yearbook supplement. This is in what was called the ‘Heirloom’ binding – padded black soft leather. Sales reps like myself used to demonstrate how robust the binding and pages were by lifting a volume by a single page. We had demo-only volumes though. It’s probably not advisable for longevity!

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.

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5 Responses to The Reassuring Thump of Encyclopaedia Volumes

  1. Ste J says:

    I like that phrase ‘the library that never closes’. I miss having an actual set of encyclopaedias, they looked great and looking through a book may take an inordinate amount of time today rather than sticking it in a search engine but it does make me feel more like Indiana Jones and that is much more satisfying.


    • Jeff says:

      > looking through a book may take an inordinate amount of time today rather than sticking it in a search engine but it does make me feel more like Indiana Jones and that is much more satisfying.

      Thanks for your comment.
      I suppose the time that’s saved by searching loses us the art of stopping to smell the roses. Such is the hurry to modern life. Some customers in charity bookshops ask about whether you’ve got a copy of what turns out to be a very obscure book or author. The purchase is usually a gift for someone. So I point them to our website. I can understand the need to get on with things, but their angst makes their predicament quickly recognisable. Regulars browse and look relaxed while doing so. Mind you, I probably turn into one of those anxious customers in shops that sell things that are off-area for me!


  2. No Answers says:

    I think there are two forms of collectible item — the item everyone wants to collect (because no one else has it), and the item no one wants to collect (because everyone else has it). I was actually thinking, as I write this, about searching out unbroken clay pipes among Victorian dumps in the South Downs as a child. It wouldn’t surprise me for a moment if the Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t transpire, in future times, to be a rare commodity precisely because it simply isn’t just now, and no rational person (except said investor) would go out of his/her way to acquire such a set. And to extend this paradox a little, I would imagine far more value would accrue to the *older* versions of EB than the newer, in despite of the fact EB is only really valuable as a resouce for its being up to date …



    • Jeff says:

      A – Thanks for your comments.
      What would put a rational investor off is the amount of space a set takes up. You’d need to be dedicated and confident to buy one on the off-chance that it’ll be worth a fortune in years to come. EB sold a lot of them, and owners are loathe to throw them out, so they’re not that rare either. In the end though, their value (assuming we’re only talking monetary value) is the overlap between what a vendor is prepared to sell for and what a buyer is prepared to pay. Both of these are fickle things.


  3. Letizia says:

    I love the title of your post, Jeff. There is something so reassuring about the thump and weight of the volumes. Alas, I don’t own any, but it’s similar to what I like about all my dictionaries – the heft, physical and intellectual. Particularly the ones that have the etymological roots.


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