Friday, December 28, 2018

Encyclopaedia Britannica, in business 250 years, hoping for 250 more

     December certainly snapped by, nearly. Did you celebrate the Illinois Bicentennial earlier this month? Me neither. The event left me cold, and I sense I’m not alone. Residents of Illinois aren’t like those of places such as Colorado or Maine—no strong collective identity. Instead, we’re Chicagoans or Downstaters, proud Illini alumni or denizens of Kane County. A guy on my block has an “Ohio is my home” bumpersticker. I’ve never seen anything similar for Illinois and don’t expect to.
     The state bicentennial wasn’t even the only big Illinois anniversary this month. There was the 250th of the oldest business based in the state … anybody? … Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in Scotland in 1768, transplanted to the United States in 1901, falling under the control of Sears Roebuck in 1920, then donated to the University of Chicago in 1943, its continuing corporate contortions since then based in Chicago.
     As a reference geek, I am the proud owner of not one but two sets — the beige-bound 1964 edition, in boxes in the attic, which my parents bought to prove we were educated people and I couldn’t bear to part with, and a 1998 edition within arm’s reach of my desk. I like it because it gives me clear, concise information often obscured by the muck on the Internet. When I went to Carbondale last year for the big eclipse, I boned up on solar eclipses and the sun with my Britannica. The way-cool fact that helium was discovered in a spectroscopic analysis of the sun — helios is Greek for “sun” — was cribbed out of the Britannica.
     Sears is a tottering ruin. But Britannica is still going strong, according to CEO Karthik Krishnan, who marked the anniversary by chatting up the media.
     “Britannica is doing great,” he said. “We had an outstanding year this year. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we’re focusing on how to get where people are and providing them information in a meaningful way.”
     Isn’t that what the internet does?

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  1. One of my stepfather's proudest purchases for his ready-made family back in tbe early 70's. The red-orange junior edition plus the deluxe reference version and the yearly almanac. He went the deluxe route.
    Knowledge. The man constantly admonished us to accumulate as much knowledge as we could.

    1. Because sometimes wisdom comes along with the knowledge...but not always.


  2. I seldom now consult my aging Britannica, but when I do am invariably rewarded with serendipitously acquired knowledge from the pages adjacent to my original target that I find myself unable to stop reading.


  3. not quite as classy as Britannica, but we had a set of World Book encyclopedias when i was a kid (my mother sold them). one of my favorite pastimes was picking out a random volume and reading it like a novel. and one of the worst punishments that could be doled out was being banned from the World Book for a period of time.
    p.s. does anybody else still hear Jiminy Cricket's voice when the have to spell "encyclopedia"?

    1. "Just look inside this book and you will see...
      Everything from A clear down to Z...
      In the ennnn-cyclopedia...

      We had a '56 edition of World Book...and bound copies of the annual supplements for years afterwards, which listed almost every recent disaster on the planet. My kid sister and I spent many a quiet Sunday morning eating cookies, reading the volumes, and letting our parakeet out of his cage...while our parents engaged in more adult pastimes.

      There was a wonderful cutaway drawing of the Quen Mary that got me interested in ships at an early age, and many unforgettable photographs. One was of a huge centipede that neither of us could stand to look at. Under "emotion" there was a very young kid, in a cowboy suit, weeping over the body of his run-over dog, while his friends stood silently by, cap pistols still in their hands. Just thinking about that image, even all these years later, still upsets me very much. That encyclopedia taught us a great deal, as youngsters, about both the beauty and the ugliness of our world.

    2. eating while reading was one of the most frequent reasons for banning.

    3. I got clocked by my old man many a time for bringing a book to the table, and reading while eating.

  4. We aoso had World Book. I remember a TV show about the Dead Sea Scrolls when I was maybe 10-11 years old, and looked it up in the encyclopedia. It was next to Deaf Sign Language, and spent the next couple of hours teaching myself the deaf alphabet. I'd often just browse thru it reading stuff.

    And I absolutely "sing" the spelling of encyclopedia...I did it just now.

  5. Residents of Northeastern Illinois (AKA"Chicagoland") aren’t like those of places such Ohio--no strong collective identity--because so many of them are originally from elsewhere. For a variety of reasons, fewer and fewer people are migrating to Ohio, which has one of the highest native-born populations of any state. Native Ohioans spend their whole lives here...or else they leave for brighter lights and bigger cities and warmth and sunshine...but they usually end up coming back. Why? Family ties are big here, and they miss them.

    In half-a-lifetime in Illinois, I almost never heard anyone identify as an Illinoisan. Even that word looks odd to me. They were a North Sider or a South Sider or an Evanstonian, or proud Downstaters. I occasionally heard the Illini fight song, but not in the way that even non-alumni sing the praises of Ohio State, almost religiously. Buckeye Nation is huge and strong, and there's a whole industry that makes and sells all things Ohio and OSU, especially clothing.

    The love for this state is seen almost everywhere that one sees its people. I was not prepared for this when I moved here from Chicago.There was even an "Ohio Store" nearby, that sold locally-grown foodstuffs and things to wear. But it's long-gone. The market for Ohioana is now huge and there are many competing Ohio-centric small businesses, an offshoot of which is Cleveland-themed stuff...probably beause native-born Clevelanders want to proudly proclaim their love and loyalty to a place that denizens of other places regard as a "shithole city"---and yes, I have also seen that “Ohio is my home” bumper sticker.

    After 26 years here, I'm acclimated to these things, and, like Mr. S, I’ve never seen anything similar for Illinois, either. I think the shape of Ohio itself has a lot to do with much easier to put Ohio's image on a shirt. The wearer of an Illinois-themed shirt would have to be about six-foot-six.


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