The Britannicas of the Dick Van Dyke Show

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November 3, 2016 by libroshombre


“14 Unusual Items You Can Get at Libraries,” an article in a year-old issue of Mental Floss magazine, included a number of non-book items that people can borrow from their libraries. Library patrons in Victoria, Australia check out surfboards, in Natick, Massachusetts it’s knitting needles, and in Canaan, Vermont they borrow snowshoes. Our Fairbanks Public Library used to loan artwork, as did two libraries I ran in Texas.

My idea of having a circulating collection of dipnets and other fishing gear at our local library was nixed by highers-up concerned about a potential legal liability. In fact, Mental Floss reported that “Dozens of public libraries, like Red Oak, Texas, lend out poles, lures, and tackle boxes.” Sometimes, as Jawaharlal Nehru observed, “the policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all.”

Public libraries have historically reflected the changes in their societies, and much of today’s revolution in social media and electronic communications can be seen in modern libraries. Where once public libraries were “the People’s University, where anyone could acquire a basic high school-level education, now it’s providing access to sophisticated databases and educational sites, safe Ethernet connections, and guidance in using those resources. That’s exactly what modern libraries do: aggregate information, provide navigational assistance, and help educate those who want to better utilize the tools.

It’s getting harder to find a copy of that old standby, the Encyclopedia Britannica at many libraries. Growing up, some close family friends owned both the Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book sets. Lazy summer afternoons were profitably spent browsing the latter, but the Britannica proved too sophisticated and had far fewer illustrations. In college I relied on the high-brow Britannica for quick, reliable overviews of unfamiliar subjects, and, as a pre-World Wide Web librarian, the work’s value was driven home. Some of the lesser known nuances of the Britannica are worth remembering. For instance, the original 1768 edition was titled “Encyclopedia Britannica; or, a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Compiled upon a New Plan.” Its title continues for another thirty-nine words before ending with “By a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland.” And the famous 11th edition (1911) is dated today, but its articles by the leading intellectual lights of the day made it very well written and a great snapshot of the collective Western mind of that time.

The “New Plan” provided longer “treatises” in alphabetical sequence with shorter explanatory articles, a new concept then. Many articles were taken verbatim from other works, which the editors cited, to their credit. However, says “For some articles … new content was written by William Smellie (1740-95), an Edinburgh printer.” Others were credited with editing the Britannica during Smellie’s lifetime, but, beginning with the publication of the 4th edition in 1801, it was formally conceded that Smellie was the first editor. Perhaps it was undeserved obscurity, or his unhappy surname, but features a very sad-looking portrait of William Smellie.

The Britannica’s been on my mind for weeks thanks to Glen Ross, who stockpiled the encyclopedia. He was the property master of the mid-1960s Dick Van Dyke (AKA DVD) Show,. We’ve been borrowing season after blissful season of DVD’s DVDs from our public library, because it’s still surprisingly humorous after 50 years. The antics of Rob and Laura Petrie seem to elicit multiple belly-laughs every episode, the bit actors sparkle, and it’s simply a delight. In this interminable election season, it’s doubly refreshing to turn back the clock to a simpler, nicer time.

Librarians can’t help but notice the multitude of Encyclopedia Britannicas in Rob and Laura’s home. The Britannica’s distinctive brown and gold spine popout in nearly every scene. The Petries had six or seven sets just in their living room. There were many more sets in his office, and in his boss’, lawyer’s, and doctor’s offices sometimes sport upwards of twenty Britannica sets. Glen Ross probably figured “books is books,” but he should have noticed the sets were woefully out of order, too.

It doesn’t detract from the show’s light-hearted adventures. As Tom Robbins, said, “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”



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