(Published in the Business Standard, March 2012)

The names on the spines of the Encyclopaedia Britannica form a litany. As a child, I browsed my way from Baltimore to Braila, Extraction to Gambinus, with a special stop at P-R: Plants to Raymond of Tripoli.

That was from the fourteenth edition, with somber dark blue spines instead of the brown, blue and gold of later editions; the music of the Britannica’s spines would change through each edition. (The first, issued in just three volumes in 1768, went from Aa–Bzo and Caaba–Lythrum to Macao–Zyglophyllum, for those who were wondering.)

For many bibliofetishists, the thistle-stamped bound volumes were inseparable from the content. This month, it was announced that no further physical editions would be printed–the Britannica will now be available only online and as an app.

For many Indians, the Britannica stood for unassailable authority. The aspiring brown sahib bought a set for his fledgling library, though secretly he envied those who’d inherited theirs, complete with age spots on the pages. The Britannica was the caste-mark of the newly Anglicised Indian; a generation later, it would signal the owner’s interest in the wider world, stamp him or her as an aspiring global citizen.

Nirad C Chaudhuri captured the solid place that the Britannica had in many Indian—all right, Bengali–homes, in the days when knowledge was pursued with the same acquisitive fervour that we reserve for Gadino white diamond bags or gold-leaf ceilings these days.

“In 1914 I was able to surprise my acquaintances by chattering about the German General Staff, General Briamont and his fortifications, artillery and aeroplanes. To no one did this showing-off of mine give greater pleasure than to an aged uncle, Mr Das… who was the father of the cousin who owned the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
The edition Niradbabu would have read had very few entries by Indian contributors, though in keeping with its imperial spirit, the Britannica included many entries on India. By the 2000s, this had changed, but the first few editions bristled with entries on Benares, Indian currency and the Frontier tribes, most written by retired British generals and old India hands.

One of the early exceptions was the wonderfully named Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree (Knight Commander of the Indian Empire), one of the very few Indians in the 1890s to be elected to the British House of Commons. Sir Bhownaggree’s expertise allowed him to write entries on the Aga Khan, Sir CJ Readymoney, Jeejeebhoy and Takhtsinghji. It was a respectable list, if not quite as interesting as the one curated by George Cordon Coulton, an expert on celibacy, concubinage, indulgence, knighthood and chivalry.

The insistence on the wisdom of experts set the Encyclopaedia Britannica apart from more modern rivals, such as Wikipaedia. The Britannica’s approach to knowledge is a curated one: the board of editors picks experts on different subjects, and the early bias towards a British, masculine, Christian view of the world has yielded to a more broad and inclusive understanding of history.

The rise of Wiki as an accepted people’s encyclopaedia in the last eleven years was unexpected. Few thought that an online open-source “encyclopaedia” where entries were contributed and edited by ordinary readers rather than experts would be successful, and yet in its 11 years, Wiki has become as ubiquitous as Google.

But neither institution is free of problems. Many Wiki entries focus on issues of ephemeral value or amplify the present obsession with celebrity. The editing battles on Wiki may be its eventual downfall—entries on more controversial subjects read like constantly overwritten palimpsests. If Wiki can’t scrape the barnacles off its hulk, it may not survive. The Britannica is likely to thrive online, if not in print; but the question of who gets to select its panel of experts is likely to become more fraught. Wiki catalogues everything, arriving almost accidentally at accuracy; the Britannica’s utility is that it promises to select only the most important.

That is not how the Britannica began, though. The first edition advertised the Encyclopaedia as “A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Compiled Upon A New Plan In which the different arts and sciences are digested into distinct treaties and systems”. It was compiled by “a society of gentlemen in Scotland”, and William Smellie, a young scholar, wrote most of the articles. He used a curiously modern method, listing the key sources from Alston’s Tyrocinium Botanicum to Ulloa’s voyages and Young on composition, liberally borrowing from all of these books.

It was very much the cut-and-paste method that journalists and students use these days, and Smellie made no bones about it: “With paste pot and scissors I compose it.”

I like that last quote; I found it on Wikipaedia.