It was a great run.
You know what I am talking about: since the news about the end of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s print edition, as Scott Hollifield, editor of the McDowell News, writes: “Writers and commentators have waxed nostalgically on the demise of these revered tomes of knowledge in the wake of the digital revolution.”
I have a special reason to “wax nostalgically” about the Britannica; it gave me one of my highest honors and certainly my best job title. Whenever I said that I “authored an article in the Britannica,” it got me attention and respect. Maybe it was undeserved, but I cherished it.
It all came crashing down last week when the Britannica announced that it was discontinuing its print edition.
Everything else, I knew, would pass away some day, like the crumbling statue of the mighty king Ozymandias. But I thought the Britannica would be forever, and I would always be “co-author of the North Carolina section of the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the United States.”
It began more than 20 years ago when my friend Marshall Gilchrist called to tell me that his family recommended me to the Britannica to update his late father’s article on North Carolina.
What qualified me for this honor, other than my friendship with the Gilchrist family and their recommendation? Nothing, really. I had recently become secretary of the University of North Carolina, which might have given me apparent –but not real– academic credibility. My new university affiliation did give me resources and connections to update, and add a little bit to, Peter Gilchrist’s wonderful article.
The Britannica editor offered me $300 for the job.
I would have done it for nothing, just for the experience. But I did not tell my editor. Instead, I asked him if, instead of the money, I could, get a hardbound copy of the Britannica. The list price for the set today is $1,395. Back then it was less, but a lot more than $300.
The editor said that my request was most irregular, but he would check into it. After some time passed, he reported higher authorities approved my request. I would get a Britannica set, a new one that would have my article and my name included in it.
That special set of the Britannica was a part of our library for more than 20 years, even as it became increasingly out-of-date and challenged by the convenience of readily available, up-to-date information from a wide variety of sources on the World Wide Web.
But every now and then, I pulled down Volume 29, found the article on “United States of America,” made my way to the “North Carolina” section at page 335, just to be sure it was still there, and then read to the end to see “Pe.S.G/D.G.M.” These initials proved again that Peter S. Gilchrist and D.G. Martin were the authors. Every visit gave me the same kind of pleasure as “googling” yourself and finding a nice entry or two.
Recently, I found a newer and more luxurious set of Encyclopaedia Britannica at the thrift shop. I paid two dollars for it and put it in the place of the older set, the one I had earned.
I tried to give my old set to the thrift shop. But a new sign announced that it no longer accepts sets of encyclopedias. “They take up so much space. And they just don’t sell anymore,” a staff member explained.
Now that it is over, how can I replace my connection to the Britannica on my resume? I am trying this one out: “I wrote for the final printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”