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Lamenting the loss of a print icon

By Wayne Drash, CNN
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Thu March 15, 2012
The Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer be printed. The iconic books have been around for 244 years.
The Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer be printed. The iconic books have been around for 244 years.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • End of print version of Encyclopedia Britannica brings a mix of emotions
  • Even Britannica loyalists admit they typically use Wikipedia these days
  • Author: "Things have to move on, but we can mourn the loss of what is being lost as well"

(CNN) -- Ronnie Oldham could sell encyclopedias. He was named National Rookie of the Month in 1988 for his ability to push the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He was so good, he once sold a set to a blind man.

Oldham learned the importance of brand identity, market leadership and customer appreciation as a traveling salesman for the famed company. He also knew how to close a deal.

"You had to produce, or you were gone."

It's been about 20 years since he last sold one of the iconic sets. The information age had dawned in the 1990s, and Oldham "saw the handwriting on the wall." He bolted.

Yet like millions of others this week, he found himself thinking about the past when news spread that, after 244 years, the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was coming to an end. It will remain online.

The history of Encyclopedia Britannica
Encyclopedia Britannica 'done printing'

"It's kind of sad," he says. "There's such a long history there."

On Twitter, thousands chimed in at #Britannica:

• @ZeidNasser: After 244 years, Encyclopaedia #Britannica to stop publishing print edition. Will now focus on digital expansion!

• @Rafe: Am considering the $1,395 Britannica "Final edition" in case this whole electronic/online thing doesn't work out.

• @standupkid: They were still printing the Encyclopaedia Britannica???

It's that last sentiment that's so painstakingly true. Even those who lamented the loss -- Is nothing sacred in this world anymore?! -- scratched their heads, pondered the thought and then realized it had been years, maybe decades, since they'd opened the leather-bound books with gold-embossed lettering.

At water coolers across the country, librarians whispered, as they tend to do: Did you hear the news?

Opinion: Why Encyclopedia Britannica mattered

The Britannica mourners weren't a bunch of old fogeys stuck in their ways, living in denial about the digital revolution. These are intellectuals who log on to Facebook every day, check in on foursquare and tweet.

They grew up with the Encyclopedia Britannica, wrote history reports from them. Even in families more prone to quote Archie Bunker than Britannica, the massive 128-pound sets made Americans feel smarter. The giant books intimidated from their lofty perch on shelves.

Nancye Browning put it this way: The encyclopedia, printed every two years, "doesn't keep up" in today's era. She's a realist. She has to be as the assistant director of the public library in Louisville, Kentucky.

Yet, she mourns, "it's like losing a friend."

Overheard on CNN.com: As information shifts from print to digital, will it stand test of time?

Cover-to-cover Britannica reader: Let me weep

The distress in author A.J. Jacobs' voice speaks of pain. Arguably, no one took this week's news harder than he.

Author A.J. Jacobs read an entire Britannica set: \
Author A.J. Jacobs read an entire Britannica set: "It's a sad day."

Jacobs spent almost a year and a half reading an entire set -- all 44 million-plus words -- for his memoir, "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World."

He joined George Bernard Shaw, heart surgeon Michael DeBakey and author C.S. Forester, to a name a few, in the vaunted group of cover-to-cover Encyclopedia Britannica readers.

One man told Jacobs that he used the books not just for knowledge, but as weights for rehabbing a hurt wrist.

"You can't do that with Wikipedia," Jacobs says.

Renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton, he adds, "took a set on his famed voyage. He ended up burning it for kindling."

"It has its uses."

His voice picks up a notch when describing the thrill of reading the entire set. The "Q" volume was delightful because "it went by so fast."

"But the letter 's,' that was a monster because it was hundreds of pages. I compare it to the Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon."

He has two favorite entries: A-ak, an ancient Korean music and the first entry in his Britannica set; and Zywiec, a Polish town where residents enjoy brewing beer and the last entry in his set.

"I'm not a Luddite. I use the Internet. I use Wikipedia all the time. But it's a sad day," he says.

"It's one of maybe 5,000 watershed moments in the death of print. Print is dying a slow but steady death. This is just one of the many examples.

"Things have to move on, but we can mourn the loss of what is being lost as well."

For the record, he has no plans to read all of Wikipedia. "The entries are being created faster than you can read them."

Weighted down by reality

Door-to-door salesmen were once synonymous with Britannica.

Traveling salesmen were once synonymous with Encyclopedia Britannica, which has moved online.
Traveling salesmen were once synonymous with Encyclopedia Britannica, which has moved online.

Oldham rattles off tricks of the trade. When you sat down with customers, you always started with the $10,000 limited edition. "We can't afford that," they'd say.

He chuckles. "By the time you got down to $1,500, they'd say it seemed pretty attractive."

He was active duty Air Force during his days on the Britannica beat. They worked solely off commission, taking in roughly 20% of every sale.

At his peak, he brought in about $50,000 to $60,000 a year, "a pretty good chunk of change for 1990."

He saw Tony Bennett sing at a company party. They always celebrated with class. For his sales efforts, he was rewarded with a reproduction of Britannica's original three-volume set from the late 1700s.

Oldham loved his time with the company. Without the books, he wouldn't have read about Benjamin Banneker, an esteemed African-American credited as the "Man Who Saved Washington" for drawing up the architectural plans for the nation's capital.

As legend has it, the original architect, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, angrily left the United States for France with all of his renderings. Banneker had seen the plans and used his photographic memory to draw what became modern-day Washington, D.C.

"What we have today is all thanks to him, and almost nobody knows who he was," Oldham says.

"I've placed a lot of books that I'm sure have been sitting on shelves and never read. But I know, especially back then, a lot of kids learned from them.

"But times have changed. The truth is I've got a limited-edition leather-bound set in my living room, but I use Wikipedia."

Britannica fan Gina Vaughn tells a similar tale. She purchased a set in 2000 for about $1,100. The plan was to keep her house Internet-free and teach her young children with traditional books.

"They started doing things on the Internet for school. I think they cracked those books, maybe, two or three times. They've been sitting on the shelf for 12 years."

She recently moved from her house into a rental home -- and the 128-pound set got too cumbersome.

"We just can't keep throwing them over our back and hauling them from rental to rental with us. They're too heavy, especially the Britannica. Those things weigh a ton."

So she sold the entire volume this week on Craigslist for 250 bucks. Nostalgia is nice and all, but it doesn't pay the bills.

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