Britannica 3, History Of

At Encyclopaedia Britannica headquarters it was time for Something To Be Done, time for some of the old whizbang called product innovation.
More

In fact, Plan B very nearly became an attempt to create another 11th edition. The agent who threatened to confound Adler's scheme was Sir William Haley, former director of the BBC and editor of the London Times, a man Benton called "the most distinguished editor in the Western world." Benton offered the job of editor-in-chief to Sir William, and he accepted it early in 1968, in the very heat of the execution of Plan B.

Haley did not like mini-encyclopedias, so he did not like the reference index. And instead of Great Ideas, he was attracted to Great Articles. He wanted a much longer encyclopedia than the 15th has come to be. He liked bizarre and out-of-the-way articles on such things as matches (which have a curious history), while Adler was subdividing FIRE. He and Adler clashed, and Adler won the battle and the war. When Haley left in early 1969 he wrote a note to a former Britannica colleague who had also resigned which said, "I'm glad you left, dear boy. The people there worship different gods than we do." Benton's Haley interlude has been estimated to have cost the project eighteen months and some multiple of a million dollars.

In 1911, the encyclopedia editor Frank Moore Colby identified the fix of the encyclopedist, the "middleman of information . . . vibrating between specialist and layman, an object of suspicion to both. I am snubbed by the learned and yet not welcome by the totally illiterate." The dilemma speaks also to the dilemma of publicists: who is that mythical creature, the curious, intelligent layman? To judge by the promotional poetry of the bad old days, the potential buyer was nobody more or less than a parent who hadn't gone to college, who might be persuaded that he hadn't been to college because his parents hadn't owned the Britannica, who wanted better for his own. A decade and less ago Britannica debased the art of discourse and the craft of salesmanship by inquiring of magazine and newspaper readers: HOW WILL THEY MEASURE UP AGAINST THE KIDS NEXT DOOR? (showing a couple of children with dreamy eyes). Or a mother, shown with a babe too young to coo, let alone read about relativity, was asked: HOW CAN YOU EXPRESS THE INEXPRESSIBLE LOVE YOU FEEL FOR YOUR CHILD? (Don't ask again, sir, sign me up!)

Since then, the readers, the customers, seem to have changed. Judging from the advertising campaign launched on behalf of Britannica 3 (so dignified and instructional in tone as to seem almost suicidally fusty), the children whose parents bought the Britannica and the World Book and Collier’s and the Americana are the targets for today's salesmen (who seem to have modified their foot-in-the-door aggressions, their will-o'-the-wisp chance-of-a-lifetime deals).

Since Britannica seems inclined finally to treat customers as though they can speak, read, and reason, it is depressing to hear Robert Hutchins, whose reverence for eternal verities he has many times proclaimed, announce that Britannica 3 is "one of the great intellectual contributions in the life of modern man." It is no such thing, of course. It is, however, a most desirable reference and learning tool, imaginatively designed and honorably executed. In Mortimer Adler's more candid judgment, a fine encyclopedia: more useful in more ways to more people.

Remember that slogan—as though they'll let you forget it.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In