The Encyclopædia Britannica has been around a long time. First published in Edinburgh, Scotland a few years before the American Revolution, it is the oldest English language general encyclopedia still in print. A fixture in libraries and, for those so fortunate, private homes for generations, a sight of its richly bound volumes standing in stately array on bookshelves communicated a sense of erudition, of almost comprehensive knowledge -- whether or not they were ever touched, save for the occasional dusting. But touched they often were, particularly in libraries, as students by the millions used the encyclopedia to help them write their “reports.” Librarians, for that matter, became used to the regular, annual visits of the Britannica sales representative who dropped by to inform the conscientious librarian of new features and revised, updated content – manifestly suitable for library patrons anxious for the latest and best.
Then, slowly at first, those cordial visits became less frequent, more often replaced by a phone call, or possibly a postcard. After awhile even the phone stopped ringing. For many libraries, including our own, where the time-honored, indispensible Encyclopædia Britannica was concerned, an eerie silence, a strangely becalmed feeling, reigned.
Jump to July, 2009. Now, thanks to the efforts of the sagacious Minnesota librarians involved in choosing (and committing state funds to pay for) resources for the Electronic Library for Minnesota (ELM), Britannica is back, this time with a digital aura. Now, Encyclopædia Britannica Online: Academic Edition is available to libraries throughout the state, including our own. It is the traditional Britannica repackaged for the digital age, including video and audio content imbedded in articles, links to websites, headlines from the NYT and BBC, side-by-side country comparisons, “this day in history” and “biography of the day” features and more. At this point you may be thinking, what will be the fate of the old print volumes in the Reading Room once students have seen this new online version? The good news is they will still be there, their authoritative content at the ready for those who may prefer to get their information from staunch columns of text on wispy paper. But even if these volumes receive only barest use, they will still look great on the shelf. We just have to remember to keep them dusted. We hope you enjoy the old/new Encyclopædia Britannica.