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

Encyclopaedia Britannica offices along the Chicago River

Encyclopaedia Britannica's offices are now at 325 N. LaSalle St., in this building along the Chicago River. | Google Streetview

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.

OPINION

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?

“There is a lot of information on the internet,” he said. “But people aren’t able to find valid and vetted information.”

I had to ask: are people really hungering for valid and vetted information? I thought the moral of the Trump era is that lots of people don’t care what’s true or not.

“I think people really want good information,” he insisted, postulating that time is more of a concern. “They don’t want to take the time.”

Britannica stopped selling its print sets in 2012. The company did just publish a $70 single volume “Anniversary Collector’s Edition” reprising greatest hits from George Bernard Shaw on socialism to Monica Lewinsky on cyberbullying. As a longtime Britannica fan, I was disappointed.

“There was no United States” the introduction begins, taking us back to 1768. “”No America or French revolutions … No telephones, electricity, railroads, or cars.”

No electricity? I reached for my handy Samuel Johnson 1755 dictionary:

electricity n.s. [from electrick. See electre.] A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper. ..”

Not the electrical grid the Britannica was thinking of, but a word and a rudimentary concept. A reminder that what is wanted in the world today is not a final arbitrator of truth, but an understanding that knowledge is a process, an argument. Both are factual, but Samuel Eliot Morison’s American history is not Howard Zinn’s.

“Britannica is in one of the best financial positions it has ever been in and we will continue to be around for the next 250 years,” said Krishnan. “I can say that with confidence. … Britannica is in 83 different countries, used by 350 millions students. In the United States, we’re in seven of 10 school systems. We generate more than 5 billion page views a year.”

Impressive. Until you consider that “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi had 5.8 billion views on YouTube since the summer of 2017. These are challenging days for old media, with its traditional emphasis on truth and quality, and we have to celebrate our existence while scheming to continue in a shifting world, with its reader defections and staff cuts. To return to Dr. Johnson, and his line about dogs walking on their hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

“We will find a way to make ourselves relevant,” said Krishnan, “and provide invaluable reference information and technology that helps people be successful.”

I sure hope so. And if you do, please let me know, so I can do the same.