Is the day of the encyclopedia on the shelf over?

Dear Readers, I’m in a quandary.

Twenty years ago, with the aid of a legacy from my late great-aunt, I invested in a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Leather bound with gilt page edges, and 32 volumes – it cost me over £1200 back then.

Britannica itself has now stopped publishing the print edition, concentrating on on-line products. Its final 32 vol set was published in 2010 in a luxury binding, it cost £9,999 and they only produced 10 sets.

My edition (the 15th) takes up nearly two full shelves of my Billy bookcases, plus there are the six yearbooks upstairs which I bought, at around £35 a volume, but have never looked at!

It looks impressive, but I no longer use it.  A few months ago, I tried to encourage my daughter to use it for a project.  “You can use the dining table with several volumes open at the same time,” I said, “so you can easily refer between them,” already knowing that it was a lost cause.

The same goes for my 6 volume boxed set of the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music from 1995 (below). I’ve not used that in far longer than the EB.

When given the choice between Google/Wikipedia and the print version of Britannica, the free on-line option, regardless of accuracy, will nowadays always be the first port of call.  It’ll usually be the only port of call too most of the time.

Getting your facts right is important though – remember Jay McInerney’s novel Brights lights big city in which the protagonist works as a fact-checker for a NewYork publication?

You can’t beat an acknowledged primary source.

I do cross-check where appropriate for book reivews – vs an author’s own website for instance, plus a major book-selling site, and Fantastic Fiction for instance, but the tendency is to rely on Wikipedia.  Its level of detail and cross-referencing is growing exponentially; it is gradually acquiring depth, which is a quality that you previously had to rely on subject-specific books for, (and still do for all serious matters). When writing posts for this blog etc. I feel justified  in using these  on-line reference sources.  I’ve given up trying to encourage my daughter to use the print encyclopedias, but I continue to say, “I have a book about that,” whenever I can.

Which leaves me with this final quandary. There are three shelves of big unused books there in total. Heaven knows, I could do with the space. I realise I’ll only get a fraction of what I paid for them if I cash in – I’m sorely tempted though. Gone are the pre-wiki days when I used take part in a postal quiz tournament and spent hours with the books researching the answers. I can only remember using them once this year, trying to help Juliet with her history essay on Thomas Beckett. Note – I am not contemplating giving up the rest of my reference collection – just the multi-volume encyclopedias.

Although they were bought with a legacy, I still have a copy of the order and certificate of ownership, so would keep that in memory of my aunt. I no longer feel particularly attached to the books themselves.

What would you do in my position?
Would you keep or sell?
Your thoughts are welcomed…

P.S. I’m open to offers!

24 thoughts on “Is the day of the encyclopedia on the shelf over?

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I don’t think I could do it, although I know it is the sensible thing to do. I have this fantasy that one day, magically, I will find I have enough space for all the books! 😉

    • gaskella says:

      I know – but unless I win the Euromillions, that ain’t gonna happen! I’m trying to be pragmatic. I have less than 15 yrs until retirement, I will have to downsize eventually to help fund it – so at some stage they’ll have to go. I can’t afford to give them away either, so better to sell now perhaps? It’s so difficult. 😉

  2. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I don’t think I could bring myself to sell them, either. But then it’s very hard for me to part with books and I often regret it when I do. On a smaller scale I have sets (although incomplete) of Time Life books – The Good Cook and The World’s Wild Places – I rarely use The Good Cook books and have only dipped into the others, now superseded by the internet! I don’t think I’d get much for these books now, but I’m tempted to see what Barter Books would offer for them, maybe … they’re choosy about what they buy.

    • gaskella says:

      I think I’ll be able to let them go. They weren’t “collected” in that sense like my other reference books. They were useful to my old life-style, but that’s changed …

  3. JanetD says:

    I too have set (blue 1992) taking up a shelf and am wondering what to do with them. I thought my twins, born 1989, would use them fro school/college. Wrong! The internet was king. What a dilemma.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Tricky, very tricky. I am currently weeding out my book collection because of the space issue, and have several very old Golden Hands crafts anthologies from the 1970s. I’ll never, ever do anything with them except gloat over the wonderfully dated pictures but I can’t bear to part with them…… :s

    • gaskella says:

      But traditional crafts are having a revival – they might come in useful … I’d defo keep the Golden Hands. The dated pix are wonderful. (apologies for veering into nr-txt-spk there!

  5. Teresa says:

    What a quandary indeed! My head says, get a decent price for them and offload whilst my heart says hold,onto them as memories of a bygone age. Laurence Llewelleyn (sp?) Bowen would probably transform them into bedside lamps!

    I still prefer using a “tree” dictionary be it English or modern languages but I don’t think the younger generation share my preference, it being much easier type in a single word rather than use one’s brain to work out alphabetical order!

    • gaskella says:

      I would never not have a good dictionary and thesaurus to hand – plus quotations etc. but all of those moments where you want to find out something about say, the exports of Guatemala and went to the encyclopedia on the shelf to look it up are gone, aren’t they.

  6. debbierodgers says:

    It took me several years to finally let go of my encyclopedia set but it wasn’t such a special one as yours. Is there a market for your set? We found that, similar to the situation with back issues of National Geographic, we couldn’t pay people to take them. Ours ended up in the recycling bin, despite our best efforts.

    I think, that if you have the space, the boxing up for future generations is the best suggestion offered. 🙂

  7. David Nolan (David73277) says:

    Perhaps you could donate them to a local library, with a stipulation that should they ever wish to dispose of them they would have to offer them back to you at no cost? This would be like the boxing option, but with the added benefits that you would not have to find space for the boxes and that, in the meantime, someone else might be getting some benefit from the encyclopedia.

  8. Thomas at My Porch says:

    Best case scenario is that 20 years from now you still have room for them and you occasionally take one out to find something out, or more likely to look at the funny dated pictures. To me, the yearbooks are the more interesting volumes. It is fascinating not only to see what happened in a given year all in one place but to see what editors in that year felt was important.

    I would say keep them until you downsize or need the space.

  9. Lisa says:

    I have been on our local high school’s PTO used Booksale for over 8 years. We no longer accept encyclopedia sets. We had no one interested in anyone wanting to purchase them. We offered them for free and still no takers. They ended up in the recycle bin. I know it sad, but they may hold more value to you than others.

  10. anokatony says:

    The big worry now is that all this stuff is available on the Internet, and no one is getting properly recompensed for putting it together. That is the big fear for the twenty-first century, there will be a few billionaires lording over us all, while all of the rest of us will be working for circus peanuts. Could be a terrible century.

  11. Ali says:

    Annabel, get rid of them. If you can make some money out of them, go for it. I’ve come to the conclusion that to let good things into our lives, we need to make some space for them. Which all sounds a bit hippy and new age, but is true. Can you tell I am in ‘purge’ mode?

  12. farmlanebooks says:

    I’m afraid I have to agree with Lisa – they aren’t worth any money. All encyclopedias are now sent for pulping by most booksellers. Noone will even take them away for free. If they have sentimental value I’d keep them. Otherwise throw them in the recycling bin 🙁

  13. Alex in Leeds says:

    I’d hang onto them and see if they gain value in the future – if everyone else is pulping/recycling theirs they will almost certainly go up. Especially if you keep the full set together and in good condition. 🙂

  14. Dark Puss says:

    You know the answer, but emotionally (whatever that is, but I do read widely you understand) you are tied to the books, the concept and of course the generosity of your relative. I say “move them out” if the space is valuable. Where I live it really would be obvious financially but I’m sorry that most of London (and I live in a really nice part) is so crazily over-priced. I do not for one moment think they will gain in value – sorry.

    • gaskella says:

      Sound advice Peter. I’ve offered them to the school where I work, as I’d rather see them used, but I suspect they’ll be there until I am absolutely forced to deal with them 😉

  15. Miss Darcy's Library says:

    I know I’m putting in my two cents’ worth ridiculously late (I missed several blog posts over the summer) but I have to ask: what happened in the end? Please say they didn’t end up in the recycling bin! That would be too sad!
    My parents have a similar problem with the diplomatic directory – there are forty years of the things squatting on the dining-room bookshelves (at least they look nice in crimson leather!) and my mother is constantly complaining about not having enough space for the rest of our books…and yet no-one has ever considered getting rid of those!

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