Yes, I Just Paid $1,600 for a Set of Encyclopaedia Britannica

(Photo: Stewart Butterfield)

Encyclopaedia Britannica has declared that its latest print edition will be its last; from here on out, everything will be digital. Jim Romenesko rounds up coverage from the Times, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. I am not much of an impulse buyer, but when I read that there were only 800 sets remaining — that’s what they say, at least — I jumped right in and paid nearly $1,600 to have a set shipped to my home in New York.

It arrived the other day in three heavy boxes. It was thrilling. The fact is that my wife and I have each, separately, gotten rid of complete sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica over the years. Mine was a yard-sale purchase; hers was a nice leather-bound set that had been a graduation gift. Neither of us felt much like hanging onto them, even before the web changed the way we all research things.

So why pay so much money for a third set of something that we’d gotten rid of twice?

For me, there were at least two reasons. The first is that I once unloaded my record collection, roughly 2,000 albums, because the CD revolution had begun and records were no longer being made. And even though I really had to get rid of the records — I just didn’t have the space for them — I’ve regretted that decision many times in the years since.

The second reason is that news of the discontinuation of the print edition threw me into a Proustian rush that overtook my senses. I grew up with the World Book encyclopedia, not Britannica. That said, when I was a kid the experience of getting lost in the encyclopedia was so powerful that it remains one of my favorite distant memories. It wasn’t all pleasant. I marveled at how much there was to know while simultaneously mourning how much I would never learn.

I don’t know where we’ll find space for the new set. My wife understands my purchase but isn’t wholly enthusiastic about it. My kids are essentially baffled by my purchase. My son, however, did quickly find an upside. When I told him what I’d paid and that there were allegedly only a few hundred sets remaining, he immediately started wondering what kind of markup I could fetch.


The same day they announced they would be discontinued, I thought I need to get one of these for my family.

Neil (SM)

I had a cheap set of "Funk and Wagnalls" encyclopedias my mother bought from the grocery store. Every few weeks some new volumes would be for sale and eventually I ended up with a complete set.

Served me well at least through grade school when at that age you could use encyclopedias for at least one source of reference for reports and such. I remember even then how some of the info felt dated after a few years, but it seemed like a bit much to actually update a whole set that often.

Britannica was, of course, a much better product, but also much more than anyone was willing to pay for.

Still the ones I had were fun.


"I marveled at how much there was to know while simultaneously mourning how much I would never learn."

This expresses exactly how I felt reading through my encyclopedia set as a kid.


I am a very "Keep nothing" kind of person. I do'nt know if i will regret my many throwaways in later years, but i probably will.

WHAT exactly, is so special about physical items that makes you want to have them take up so much space in your home? Can you put words on this?

Mike B

I'm sure a used copy would have been much much cheaper, but hey, why pay less.

BTW if dying physical media formats tickle your fancy why don't you sign up for Google's new YouTube on DVD collection.


Is your name really Mike? You seem more like a Dick to me.

Eric M. Jones.

"My kids are essentially baffled by my purchase." ....and your readers. Does profligacy of this sort perhaps indicate an underlying lithium deficiency?

I find that progress produces an amazing problem: Some expensive items I-can't-afford decline to cheapo items I-don't-want so fast that I never see an affordable price-point flying by. E.g.: Leica 35mm cameras, IBM Selectrics, Encyclopediae Britannica.


Lithium deficiency jokes! Ha ha! You have no idea what you are talking about.

Don't speak for readers. Speak for reader.


One of the few things left in print that is WORTH buying. If I had the money, (I'm a student), I'd buy a copy instantly. This kind of knowlege is not only worth keeping, but when I have children, they probably won't know what a book looks like - not to mention, the authority of things like this are inconcievable.. Why wouldn't someone want at least 1 copy of the world's authorities to hand!!

Nb - I just called my uncle to suggest that the family pool money, but he disagreed with my assessment by saying it's not worth it and that copies of it will probably turn up in junk shops.... Since my uncle's only, probably, slightly older than Mr. Dubner, maybe this isn't a genarational thing?!

Gary L.

I found a complete Encyclopedia Britannica from the early 1900s (1905 maybe?) in an old house my Dad used to rent. I remember flipping through it as a kid, fascinated. What gave it the most appeal was what was missing: 2 World Wars, the Great Depression, the Space Race, 11 amendments to the Constitution, non-violent resistance.


One misplaced electromagnetic pulse, and we'll all wish we had done the same.


I feel the same way about having a World Book set at home growing up, as well as some other, more child-friendly illustrated history, in volumes, about the past couple hundred years. For that matter, I also remember spending idle time in a library, which is also something of a lost art in the Internet age.

Encyclopedia Brown

I grew up with the Encyclopedia Americana and what I miss most about it are the hard-bound annual volumes that updated you on the year just past. Nowadays, I am happy having a copy of the World Almanac on hand to give me a synoptic view of things, but it just can't give me the same degree of in depth reporting on the varied news stories of the preceding year. Can I live without it? Sure, but if I were going to compete on Jeopardy! say, the two or three most recent volumes would be some of the books I would most want to read to brush up on recent events.


Yeah I got this huge canvas thing with a bunch of scribbles and colors and I'm going to throw it away because it takes up so much space. Why keep something physical like that in my home? Besides, I can look at a .jpg of the same thing online anytime I want. I understand that others have canvas things in their home too. I even hear that some luddites have useless ceramic containers that they put on stands and even keep empty! I can understand if they filled it with cereal. What makes them want to take up so much space? Can you put words on this? Besides, these are all dying formats, obviously, because everything is online, obviously.


Funny, I also grew up with the World Book, and also remember spending hours reading it. I don't even know where I'd put an encyclopedia set now, but as my kids now approach the age at which I remember reading encyclopedias, I keep wondering whether they are going to miss out on something by not having one. On the other hand, our newly acquired iPad seems as if it might have the potential to fill the same role.


Now I know for sure Dubner is an INTP. Stay thirsty [for knowledge], my friend.


That doesn't make any sense.

You later felt bad selling your records. Why buy thee last edition of Britannica for 1.6K and not the one before? (It's not the same [old] edition in any case)

You really liked the World Book Encyclopedia, why pay extra for the last Britannica and not just get some from antiquarian bookstore?


Sounds like poor impulse control. in my neck of the woods, used copies of the 15th edition sell for between $50-300. I appreciate the desire to browse (which is different from link) which is much better suited in book format and where wikipedia falls down, but the $1300 price differential from used to new seems hardly worth it. I mean, they are encyclopedias, pretty much the gold standard for durability in book format.

Howard Mahler

One thousand years from now the digital versions of today's encyclopedias may well be gone or unreadable, while the hardcopy versions that survive will still be readable. Your hardcopy set may turn out to be a valuable resource for historians in the distant future.


Encyclopaedias are also one of my favorite childhood memories. They belonged to my grandmother. I didn't have my "toy box" available while staying there, so I spent my time reading through those things starting with a random letter. They sure beat an eye burning digital copy.