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Speaking Volumes: Here’s how Britannica remains relevant after 250 years in business

First published in 1768, Encyclopedia Britannica celebrated its 250th anniversary on Dec. 6.

The book series, which for over two centuries has been a staple on the bookshelves of homes, schools and libraries across the globe, had humble beginnings as a two-man operation out of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Founded by Colin Macfarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver, Encyclopedia Britannica began as weekly installments of unbound paper available only to subscribers.

Within the first decade of publication, the books gained popularity among American leaders.

Both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington purchased the book and it gained numerous readers across the west through the end of the 18th century as more editions were published.

Major changes came to Encyclopedia Britannica during the 20th century as it became the book series we know today.

It is now owned by an American publisher, and many changes to the book were made to make it more scholarly.

Experts were brought in to the publishing process to ensure that bad information was not making its way into the books.

The encyclopedia also became more accessible to the average family. Under the ownership of Sears, door-to-door sales of the series promoted the idea that owning Encyclopedia Britannica was a sign of success for the middle class.

For many, Encyclopedia Britannica is a source of nostalgia for a time when information could be found by pulling a book from the shelf rather than relying on the internet.

What you may not know is the company stopped publishing print editions of the encyclopedia in 2012. Since that time, Encyclopedia Britannica has focused on establishing a web presence with their numerous reference and learning websites, including britannica.com and merriam-webster.com.

Despite the end of its bound books era, the company remains hugely popular through its digital entities.

There are many ways to incorporate Encyclopedia Britannica into your everyday information searches.

Earlier this year, the company introduced a new Google Chrome extension, “Britannica Insights,” which provides its own results to Google searches in a simple easy-to-read “facts only” sidebar. This product is free and the content is created by the writers and editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Your Manatee County public library also has numerous digital books from the Encyclopedia Britannica series available for free to patrons via the Hoopla app. These include the annual book of the year series, biographies and subject guides ranging from climate to genetics.

For those looking for that nostalgia of pulling a Britannica from the shelf, we also have the Britannica Illustrated Science Library collection and the My First Britannica beginner’s encyclopedia set for children.

For more information on the Britannica books we have at the library, call your local branch:

  • Central Library — 941-748-5555;

  • Braden River — 941-727-6079;

  • Island — 941-778-6341;

  • Palmetto — 941-722-3333;

  • Rocky Bluff — 941-723-4821;

  • South Manatee — 941-755-3892.

You also can access the library via the internet at mymanatee.org/library.

Katie Fleck is a librarian at the Central Library in downtown Bradenton. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald.

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