Mourning the End of an All Around Education

Sara Dreyfuss currently serves as the Managing Editor of the journal portal: Libraries and the Academy, but she previously worked as the editorial director of the World Book Encyclopedia. Dreyfuss wrote an essay called "Out of Print" about the disappearance of print encyclopedias for the July issue of the journal. She joined us for a Q&A to talk about the importance of encyclopedias and what their demise means to her and learners in general.

What made you decide to write this essay?

Print encyclopedias have long been dear to my heart. Like many members of my generation, I have fond memories of reading encyclopedias, and I have regretted seeing those once-thriving publications go out of business one by one. It has felt like watching beloved family members grow steadily frailer and die. Today, only The World Book Encyclopedia continues to publish a new annual edition, and I fear that even World Book may soon stop producing a print set.

What memories do you have of your relationship with encyclopedias?

As a child, I spent long hours browsing through my family’s encyclopedia. I went to work for World Book fresh out of graduate school, starting there as a fact checker and eventually becoming the editorial director. Encyclopedias went through enormous changes in the four decades I worked there. When I began, encyclopedias were set in hot metal type and sold door-to-door by an army of salesmen. When I left, the editing and composition were done entirely on computers, and except for World Book, the few remaining encyclopedias were published only online.

At first, I felt stunned by the sheer hubris of the encyclopedia concept: the word encyclopedia derives from Greek words meaning all-around education. It seemed impossible to reduce all human knowledge to a shelf of books, let alone keep up with world events and advances in scholarship and the constant revision required. The case of Pluto comes to mind. Pluto was long considered the ninth planet from the sun. In late August 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded it to a dwarf planet. The 2007 edition of World Book was already on press, and dozens of articles had to be quickly revised. The scramble inspired a poem called “Requiem for the Former Planet Pluto” (the editors’ names have been changed):

Can they just demote a planet?
Just dump it, fire it, can it?
What a lousy thing to do to
The poor little planet Pluto.

Astronomers met in August
And said, “We haven’t the foggest
Why that little snowball
Was a planet at all.”

So Mark yelled, “Stop the presses!”
Sue started cleaning up messes.
And Anne went to work to erase
Every vestige, remnant, and trace.

Somehow the work got done,
Though no one can say it was fun.
And World Book was brought up to date,
There aren’t nine planets now, only eight.

Despite the difficulties of keeping an encyclopedia up to date, I quickly came to respect the effort, no matter how hopeless, and appreciate its value to readers. Over the years, countless librarians, teachers, and other people have told my colleagues and me how much they loved World Book and even declared that it changed their lives.

How have libraries treated encyclopedias as times have changed?

Until the 1980s, most libraries kept current editions of half a dozen major encyclopedias, including Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopædia Britannica, Collier’s, World Book, and the Book of Knowledge. Libraries bought updated versions of the encyclopedias every two or three years, usually on a rotating basis. Today, you might occasionally see an old print set of World Book behind the reference desk or the online edition of Britannica among the library’s subscription databases, but there is little else in any library that resembles an encyclopedia.  

In a time when facts seem relative to some people, how disappointing is it to see a permanent record of facts disappear like this?

It is hugely disappointing. The Princeton historian David Bell said it better than I could: “With the disappearance of paper encyclopedias, a part of the Western intellectual tradition is disappearing as well.”