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    Auction Finds

    Tossing out those old Encyclopedia Britannicas

    I have no memories of the encyclopedia salesman. No one came to our door in rural Georgia trying to sell us encyclopedias that we could not afford. The only ones I ever saw were at the schoolhouse I rode a yellow Blue Bird bus to every morning and from every afternoon.

    So recently when I saw a well-muscled worker effortlessly heave boxes of gold-lettered Encyclopedia Britannicas onto a table in the back lot of an auction house, no memories formed in my head, just words: Time had certainly bypassed these books.

    These days if I need to find out a tidbit of history or important people or anything, I just Google and up turns the anyone-can-edit Wikipedia (even though I’m careful to verify whatever I read in that online reference). Britannica always prided itself on having experts as contributors (including such people as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu) to its collection of knowledge.

    Volumes of Encyclopedia Britannicas waiting to be sold.

    Volumes of Encyclopedia Britannicas waiting to be sold.

    In an entry about its own accuracy, Wikipedia notes that it is “open to anonymous and collaborative editing.”

    I wasn’t surprised to see the encyclopedias dumped on the auction table. What I didn’t know was that publication of the print edition of the Britannica had ended more than seven years ago. Now you can only access its information online with a free tease and sometimes a fee for more. World Book still publishes its print edition.

    The company announced in 2012 that its 2010 edition – weighing in at 129 pounds – was its last. It was going digital, and would focus more on online encyclopedias and its educational products for schools. Britannica had been in print for 244 years.

    Boxes of Encyclopedia Britannicas ready to be sold at auction.

    Boxes of Encyclopedia Britannicas at auction.

    The encyclopedia had seen its “life cycle pass,” the president of the company, Jorge Cauz, said in a 2013 interview in which he noted that the passing was not traumatic but necessary.

    The company had been impacted by Wikipedia and other forces. In 2005, the journal Nature showed in a study that Wikipedia was very close to Britannica in its accuracy of information about science subjects. The study found 3.86 mistakes per article in Wikipedia compared to Britannica’s 2.92 mistakes. Britannica officials obviously disagreed with the findings.

    In 2010, a 32-volume set of the encyclopedia cost $1,395. Only about 8,500 copies were printed. The online edition can be accessed for $70 a year (or with a free or paid app), with special plans for colleges and universities. Wikipedia is free, although it does accept donations.

    An inside page shows that the this volume of Encyclopedia Britannica were from 1942.

    An inside page shows that the this volume of Encyclopedia Britannica was from 1942.

    Before the print edition was discontinued, Britannica was said to still be purchased by libraries and other institutions, and some families who liked seeing those gold-lettered spines grandly displayed side by side on a bookshelf. There’s some question about whether anyone ever really opened the encyclopedia more than once or twice a year.

    Britannica was said to have had more than 4,000 contributors, but they could not match the millions who update Wikipedia regularly and without the time lapse of a print publication. Wikipedia was said to have 3.7 million articles at one point, and Britannica, about 100,000 in print.

    There was a time, though, when both were the go-to reference books. In school, I remember using World Book a lot more than Britannica, the oldest continuously published English-language encyclopedia. World Book volumes were slim and easier to carry and flip through. Britannica was like a huge tub of water that seemed to weigh as much as I did as a child.

    Encyclopedia Britannicas strewn on the ground at auction.

    An overturned box of discarded Encyclopedia Britannicas at auction.

    At an auction for a closed elementary school recently, I came across a set of World Books that had been left behind.

    Britannica was first published in 1768 in Scotland in three volumes. It steadily increased its output, and picked up some cache and major literary contributors along the way. By 1911, it had been purchased by a U.S. company, which made such changes as shortened entries. By 1933 it was reprinted and updated on a schedule.

    By 1996, internet access was beginning to change the way people accessed information, putting a strain on Britannica long before Wikipedia, the president said in the 2013 interview. The company saw its sales drop from 120,000 sets in 1990 to no more than 30,000 six years later. The purchase of CD-ROMS online impacted the company, so it branched into publishing its content online and offering educational products.

    World Book encyclopedias left behind in an elementary school that had closed.

    World Book encyclopedias left behind in an elementary school that had closed.

    Most of the company’s revenue today comes from its educational products designed for K-12 schools. Like other web entities, it relies on digital advertising based on its audience.

    When the encyclopedia ceased in print, its door to door salesmen also disappeared, the victim of layoffs in its offices (most were in Canada and the United States). The company had been selling books door to door for 60 years to such disparate people as farmers, new parents, and the poor and middle class. The salesmen never made cold calls, one former salesman said, but worked off inquiries to the company’s main office in Chicago.

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