Woster: Before search engines, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica

Printed encyclopedia sets were popular in those days, more than 60 years ago. Many homes had a full set, and often the set was prominently displayed in an ornate book case.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

In the early days of my courtship with Nancy, I would sometimes go to her house to watch television while her baby brother read the encyclopedia.

Tim is 10 years younger than his sister, so he was 6 or so at the time. He would grab a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and start reading.

“Isn’t that cute?’’ his mother said the first time I saw him do it. “He just reads and reads, one entry at a time. He learns so much.’’

I agreed it was cute. Inside, though, I was thinking it would have been cuter if he had been sitting somewhere besides on the couch between Nancy and me, reading aloud. Nancy’s family lived in a five-bedroom house with a full basement and walk-up attic. There were other rooms he could have picked for his reading. It took awhile for me to warm up to that kid.

The Encyclopedia Britannica had something like 24 or 25 volumes in those days. That is a lot of sitting between a guy and a girl who are starting to date.


Printed encyclopedia sets were popular in those days, more than 60 years ago. Many homes had a full set, and often the set was prominently displayed in an ornate book case. The encyclopedia was where people went to learn, to check facts, to discover the major exports of South American countries and to find a list of the books written by James Joyce or how many oranges were grown in Florida in 1923.

It was a popular search engine in the days before search engines. Nancy and I were still trying to make enough money to get ahead when we committed to buying a full set of the encyclopedia. We didn’t want our young children to fall behind in school. Sure, the school had sets, but what about evenings and weekends? Our sales guy was good at his job.

Not just anybody can go out on the street and sell a set of encyclopedias. About the time our first child was born, a boyhood friend dropped out of dental school in Minneapolis and moved to Sioux Falls, where we lived. He got a room at the YMCA (he never made it sound fun to stay there). He took a course in sales and started wandering the neighborhoods with a sample case of encyclopedias.

It took two weeks for him to realize he didn’t have what selling required. He was bright, and he had used encyclopedias most of his life. He just could not sell them. He quit and got a job cooking at a place called Chris’ Country Grill. My friend could cook up a storm. He didn’t have to sell anything. He just had to get the orders up quickly and correctly.

I read online — through a Google search — that Encyclopedia Britannica was first published in the 1768 as a three-volume set. The last print edition, 32 volumes, went to press in 2010. The cool kids started checking things out online, as I did with my Google search. That is not to say I’m a cool kid, just that online is about the only way to find things from home these days.

Oh, we hung on to that first set of encyclopedias for ages. Over the years, the volumes left the living area and moved to a book shelf in our basement. I couldn’t bring myself to part with them, and I couldn’t find anyone to take them. I think we kept them until we sold our big house and then dumped them at a second-hand place.


I watched a news program the other morning and learned that Microsoft is doing something with artificial intelligence to improve its search engine. I didn’t understand everything I heard, but they made it sound better than anything since the first encyclopedia, and it doesn’t require a printing press.

A search engine that can chat with an online searcher is somehow a feature of the new development. I wonder if it is the sort of thing Nancy’s brother could have used to learn stuff without sitting between us on the couch.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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