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March 17, 2012

The Encyclopaedia Britannica in print, unmourned by me

I've never been particularly fond of encyclopedias, regarding them in my youth as necessary evils to consult and plagiarize in desperate last-minute efforts to get passing grades on assignments I should have done weeks earlier.

Sometimes, _ adorable tyke that I was _ I would ask my parents questions about this or that, secure in the knowledge that moms and dads know everything.

"Go look it up in the encyclopedia," they would say.

I resented greatly this withholding of information, being far too young and naive to catch on that they were too shrewd to admit that they couldn't answer my questions on their own.

So, I didn't burst into tears upon hearing the news Wednesday that The Encyclopaedia Britannica was _ for the first time since its Edinburgh, Scotland, birth in 1768 _ ending publication of its printed editions.

Like seemingly everything else I grew up taking for granted, The Encyclopaedia Britannica in print is falling victim to the Internet or some new gadget.

I always thought the British spelling _ "encyclopaedia" rather than the good, old American "encyclopedia" _ was more than a little pretentious.

I also thought the $1,400 price for the latest 32-volume edition printed by Britannica was more than a little bit too expensive for most people.

Now, if you want to glean all that knowledge, you'll have to look at a digital version. An online subscription will set you back about 70 bucks a year, while apps go for anywhere from $1.99 to $4.99 per month.

"The print edition became more difficult to maintain and wasn't the best physical element to deliver the quality of our database and the quality of our editorial," Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., told Reuters.

I never knew from databases when I was a kid. What I knew was that in our lower-middle class neighborhood, every house had to have an encyclopedia, even if it was just for looking nice when people came over.

I don't know where my family got our encyclopedias. I think the brand was World Book, but I'm not sure. Two things of which I am certain is that they weren't Britannicas, and that the volume I would be seeking for my quickie book report would be missing.

It never seemed to fail. If I needed info about _ say _ Scotland, the "S" book was nowhere to be found.

I had this teacher in junior high named Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman was a young man, and kind of a serious fellow. My memory is anything but _ well _ encyclopedic, but somehow I remember this guy's name after all these years.

I do remember that Mr. Freeman didn't seem to like me very much. That was very possibly because I was one of the lousiest students in his class, and to boot, not the charmer I am today.

Somehow, I managed to scrape by in his class. I suspect the reason was that Mr. Freeman didn't want to run the risk of having me in his class again the next semester.

Be that as it may, it became summer, as it so often does after the school year ends. One hot day, I was outside playing street baseball with my friends, when I noticed Mr. Freeman sweating in a suit and carrying what appeared to be a heavy box.

Mr. Freeman's face did not light up with unrestrained joy at the recognition of my countenance, but he managed to be far friendlier to me than he ever was in a classroom.

Mr. Freeman was selling encyclopedias, and I suppose any kind of a lead is mother's milk to door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. I pointed out my house, and my former teacher ambled to the front door.

(I wasn't there, but his spiel probably went something like this):

"Hello there, Mrs. Pollak. I'm Mr. Freeman, and I had your boy Sam in my class last semester. That's a fine son you have there, Mrs. Pollak, even if he was not, shall we say, among my brightest pupils.

"But that's why it's fortunate that I happened by. I'm selling these beautifully bound encyclopedias guaranteed to make even Sam college material ..."

I don't suppose that selling encyclopedias door-to-door is a very pleasant vocation, even if it is just to supplement a teacher's salary when school is out. Having to schlep heavy books, ring the doorbells of strangers and face such predictable rejection must be awful.

Mom didn't help Mr. Freeman's day. She didn't buy any encyclopedias. Mr. Freeman didn't return to my school for the next semester, and I never saw him again.

So now, The Encyclopaedia Britannica print edition is history. I really don't mind ... and wherever he is today, I doubt very much that Mr. Freeman does, either.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at

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