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Rule, Britannica! To the end


At the end we must recall the beginning, as all good eulogies must. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, which recently decided to stop publishing its iconic hard-bound print volumes, was first brought out in 1768 in Edinburgh, almost at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Think about that. It predated the discovery of continents like Australia and planets like Uranus;recorded the transformation of the world by science, competing ideologies and the arts;and chronicled everything else deemed 'significant' to human affairs. The Britannica waxed with the spread of western imperialism, culture and systems of knowledge, and then waned with the establishment of a new global intellectual order, where, in Tagore's words, knowledge is free, or almost free, and the world is not fragmented by narrow domestic walls.

While not the first encyclopedia to be printed (Chamber's Cyclopedia in 1728 and Denis Diderot's 1751 Encyclopedie preceded it), the Encyclopaedia Britannica soon came to be regarded as 'the Sum of all Human Knowledge' - the tagline in a famous advertisement for its iconic 1911 edition.

This tree of knowledge took firm root in every corner of a foreign field that looked to be England. Like India, where bhadralok only spoke of cricket, where tea which had been brewed for exactly four minutes was poured into cups after the milk, and where disputes were resolved by the settled truths found in well-worn volumes of the Britannica.

But Britannia ceased to rule the waves a long time ago. 'Wisdom' is no longer solely arbitrated by the West looking to enlighten the rest. The masses strike back at the old empire's intellectual edifices, especially with the internet. They are no longer merely 'hewers of wood and drawers of water', but the vrai sum of all human knowledge.

In school I aspired to put together a 'perfect' reference library, the main components of which were the Oxford English Dictionary, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the Larousse Gastronomique, Bulfinch's Mythology, and of course, the pi?ce de rêsistance of such whimsy, the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the 1980's this ultimate object of cerebral desire cost about Rs 8000, a prohibitive sum considering land in south Delhi cost about Rs 2000 per square yard, a dosa at the Taj cost Rs 15, and the starting salary for an IIM MBA was Rs 3000. My parents offered me diamond jewellery as a coming-of-age present on my 18th birthday. I asked for the Britannica instead. A special wooden cupboard was made to hold the volumes. It occupied pride of place in our house. All answers were sought here through the years. Until now.

And so, while we mourn the demise of the book, and the serendipitous joys in childhood of discovering anteaters while looking up antelopes, I have probably not used the Encyclopedia Britannica in the last 10 years. The sets are fast becoming an object of display rather than use, like elephant tusks and peacock feathers.

The writing was on the wall when digital media changed how we access knowledge. Wikipedia is, of course, the elephant in this drawing room. The collaborative website covers over four million topics versus the Britannica's austere 100, 000. The Britannica's website (now its only avatar) garners 450 million hits annually;Wikipedia gets 36 billion. This is in spite of the accuracy and trustworthiness of Britannica articles, written by either editorial staff or experts that have included Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Leon Trotsky.

The debate remains, however, about whether the collective wisdom of the multitude can be as good as the special knowledge of a few. In terms of user preference though, the numbers speak. As far as accuracy goes, a 2005 Nature study comparing articles from both reported, remarkably, very little difference. While half a million subscribers currently pay to use Britannica Online, if most users had to choose between a free Britannica or Wikipedia, they would probably use Wikipedia because of the certainty of finding an answer to their query. Some might then to back it up with the Britannica.

But some joys are unique to the form, and perhaps dearly lamented. Readers once took great pride in reading the entire Britannica. Like Fat'h Ali, who on becoming the Shah of Persia in 1797 was given a set of the 3rd edition, which he read completely. After this feat he extended his royal title to include 'Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclop?dia Britannica. ' Others who have made similar claims are George Bernard Shaw and C S Forester.

British explorer and imperial icon Ernest Shackleton took a set along on his doomed 1914 Antarctic expedition. He wrote in his book South: "In addition to the daily hunt for food, our time was passed in reading the few books that we had managed to save from the ship. The greatest treasure in the library was a portion of the Encyclop?dia Britannica. This was being continually used to settle the inevitable arguments that would arise. ... Owing to our shortage of matches we have been driven to use it for purposes other than the purely literary ones, though;and one genius having discovered that the paper used for its pages had been impregnated with saltpetre, we can now thoroughly recommend it as a very efficient pipe-lighter. "
You can't do that with the internet now, can you?

The writer, a Delhi-based entrepreneur, was Mastermind India 2001

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