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?
To continue reading, click here.