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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

Encyclopedias for Learning

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 9:07 AM by Jenny Levins

Buying a set of encyclopedias used to be a ritual for young couples once their children started school.  As a boy my parents purchased a set of World Book’s from a door-to-door salesman.  They cost a small fortune considering my parents income at the time, but like most working class people in the late 60’s they were convinced that education was the key to improving ones lot in life.

Installment plans made purchasing the thick volumes that ran from $700 to $1,400 more affordable and by 1991 the encyclopedia market was a $1.2 billion dollar industry.  World Book began in 1917 and its first encyclopedia release contained 8 volumes 6,300 words.  By the 1990’s Britannica was the leader in the industry with sales of around $650 million.  Britannica was the gold standard with over 44 million words written by scholars and more than 80 Nobel laureates. 

In the early 90’s a revolution hit the encyclopedia industry when Microsoft purchased the supermarket encyclopedia Funk & Wagnall.  They put the encyclopedia out on CD calling it Encarta and began selling it for $99.  Buyers of new computers often began getting Encarta as free software with their purchase.

In the next three years the Encyclopedia industry saw its sales cut by a half a billion dollars.  Britannica’s sales dropped from $650 million to $325 million.  After 60 years of selling their encyclopedias door-to-door Britannica laid its entire door-to-door sales staff off in 1996 and began selling their books at below cost.

In the late 90’s Microsoft bought Collier’s Encyclopedia and New Merit Scholar Encyclopedia from Macmillan and began hiring away the staff and senior editors from World Book.   Britannica’s CD version came out costing $125 and its online version $85.  A considerable cut in price from its print sets at $1,400. 

The computer revolution proved disastrous for sales of print sets of encyclopedia’s and most are purchased today by institutions such as libraries.  Microsoft itself has seen its Encarta version under pressure from the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia and search engines such as Google. 

Print volumes are now dated almost as soon as they are published with the huge flow of information we have today.  Britannica updates their online version monthly while Encarta updates weekly. When the space shuttle Columbia blew up Encarta did an immediate emergency update.  Online editions also have more colorful pictures, video and audio clips, and online links to additional resources

The Iredell County Public Library Reference Department is now offering World Book encyclopedia’s online version free for our library cards holders.  Just go to and type in the username of Iredell and the password library. 

World Book Online Reference Center claims to be the premier online reference source containing every article from the 22-volumn print set with state-of-the-art multimedia, editor-reviewed Web sites, maps, current events, special reports, and World Book for Kids.  The online version is also available in Spanish. 

In addition, Iredell County Public Library card holders can access Britannica encyclopedia by going to the library’s website at and clicking on NCLIVE.  You will be asked to enter your library card number and once logged in you can access Britannica along with other free information databases that together would cost nearly $3,500 if you paid for them yourself.

What was the fastest search engine before the Internet came along?  Librarians were the fastest search engine in the pre-Internet days and are still the most helpful. 

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Online encyclopedias are up-to-date resources” on Oct. 4, 2006