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6 May 2020

Can the almanack survive in the digital age?

As we increasingly rely on the internet for instant information, the reference book begins to look like an artefact from another era.

By Matthew Engel

When is Rogation Sunday? What’s the capital of Tuvalu? How many silver balls are there on a viscount’s coronet? Who is the MP for Crewe and Nantwich? The answers to all these questions can be found in the 152nd edition of what used to be known as Whitaker’s Almanack. 

Since 1869 Whitaker’s has been a precious institution, a benchmark of a civilised country. Its survival in book form is a guarantee that, if Armageddon involves a complete switch-off of the internet, there will still be a record of who and what we were.

However, we currently do have the internet and that has made Whitaker’s future problematic. The answers to the questions above are: 17 May; Funafuti; 16; and – according to Whitaker’s – Laura Smith (Labour). Except that she isn’t MP for anywhere any more; as you may recall, there was an election in December, three months after the book’s deadline. 

Of course its editor, Ruth Northey, knew an election might be coming. The timing was unfortunate for her as well as the Labour Party, although Northey’s preface explained that book purchasers could request the full results, which would be provided “at our earliest convenience”, a phrase I had not heard in a while.

But if you need to identify the new MP for Crewe and Nantwich, you can, at your own earliest convenience, go straight to Wikipedia which charges no one anything. And that is a huge problem for Whitaker’s.

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In November, the book’s owner, Bloomsbury, announced it was bailing out. Annual sales were apparently below 2,000 – with a similar number buying the £30 Concise edition. Closure seemed imminent. But in late February, a new and improbable owner was announced: Rebellion Publishing, described in the Bookseller as an Oxford-based “graphic novel and genre fiction indie”. The jaunty Rebellion logo might not sit well on Whitaker’s sober spine. But this is not a joke. 

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On my shelves, there are dozens of general reference books, all about two outstretched arms’ lengths away from my desk. This may be standard for ageing professional writers who work from home even in normal times, though it may also indicate an unusual level of anality.

There are some random Whitaker’s, a 1963 Daily Mail Year Book (presumed long defunct), a single Pears Cyclopedia (born 1897, died 2017). From the US, where they long ago knocked the final “k” off almanack, there are several editions of the New York Times Almanac (died 2011) and the World Almanac (still extant). 

When did I last look at any of them? While writing this article, actually. Before that? Dunno. I got birth and death dates for these volumes from Wikipedia. That means they are not necessarily verified. But the traditionally trusted sources are less and less available and no book or human can definitively record their own death. 

Responsible adults would never use Wikipedia to write a coherent appraisal of anything, certainly not an active politician or corporate entity. But the wisdom of crowds works well for dates. And a quick glimpse at the pages for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson suggests that someone senior at HQ is keeping their eyes peeled and maintaining balance.

Even my adored dictionaries of quotations are used less often because a check online with at least two sources can do the job more quickly. I do still look at my 1992 edition of British Hit Singles but in that case I have minimal interest post-1992 anyway. The last successor volume came out in 2008.

It is the specialised reference books that are best-equipped to withstand Hurricane Internet. Who’s Who (born 1849) is helped by discounted sales to the delighted new biographees. Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack (1864), is safe for the medium-term because of its appeal as a collectable. The Football Yearbook, known as Rothmans before tobacco advertising became taboo, has long been at risk but has made it to its 50th birthday with backing from the kind folks at the Sun.

Crockford’s Clerical Dictionary (1858) goes on, listing the Anglican clergy from Canon Angus Aagaard, rector of North Lambeth, to Rev Berkeley Zych, vicar of Harpenden St John. The Church of England now publishes the book itself and one trusts it is more concerned with prophets than profits. The Times Guide to the House of Commons (which has detailed the members of each new parliament since 1929 and intermittently before that) has just reappeared, Crewe and Nantwich included – if any New Statesman reader can bear to look. But the path of all these is no longer upwards. 

The most majestic multi-volume works seem unlikely ever to reappear in actual print. Their future is surely online: the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (roots dating back to 1882); the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1879); and the Oxford English Dictionary (A and B first issued 1888, though readers had to wait 40 years before discovering whether zych might be a word). However, the OED will let you have all 20 volumes if you have a spare £862.50 or win a series of Countdown. Online, these works have good survival prospects because they have their own niche sewn up. The omniscience of Whitaker’s is both its glory and its problem.

Joseph Whitaker launched his almanack at a time when there were many rivals trying to feed the 19th-century frenzy for knowledge. But the thoroughness of Whitaker’s efforts were obvious from the start: 36,000 subscriptions were taken out before the 1869 edition was published (the Victorian equivalent of the Amazon pre-order price guarantee). And, almost ever since, its history has been astonishingly untroubled, bordering on serene. The office and archives were wrecked by a 1940 bomb, but edition number 72 still came out. 

I took a look at the 1888 almanack. Its deadpan attention to detail is still the same. The contents have changed mainly because the world has. Mostly, the book has expanded. However, the Royal Navy’s 1888 roll-call of new-fangled ironclads – 59 of them: “Achilles, Agamemnon, Agincourt, Ajax, Alexandra, Anson, Audacious, Australia…” – almost exceeded the entire modern fleet right down to the river patrol boats. If that single sub-section has been updated every year, this in itself constitutes a significant scholarly resource.

The Whitaker tradition did not waver: Joseph edited the book for 28 years until he died in 1895. But he begat Cuthbert, who was editor for 55 years. In that time Cuthbert’s nephew, Haddon, took charge of the business side and he eventually gave the editorship to FHC “Tom” Tatham, though he – the gadabout – only lasted 31 years, until 1981. In 113 years, three editors. There have been eight since then, a certain loss of confidence and now a third new owner. In 2014, Bloomsbury even took the word almanack out of the title, as if that were the problem. Unlike Wisden, it really is an almanack, complete with tide tables and an incomprehensible set of figures which I think say when one might glimpse Neptune. 

It’s not just the internet that has threatened Whitaker’s. A book selling for £100 necessarily expects most of its sales to come from public libraries. The assault on local government finances may be construed as one of the most successful projects of the David Cameron era. But faced with impossible choices, councils started to regard books as luxury items. Citizens Advice also used to have Whitaker’s in its offices, for the almanack’s details of tax and benefits, but this is now apparently also deemed non-essential. The second blow has been the demise of the old book clubs – the Readers’ Union, the Literary Guild and the like – which used to advertise heavily in the colour mags with heavily discounted introductory offers. Pricy reference books were perfect for this purpose. “I know Bloomsbury have tried everything,” said one book trade source. “Upped the price. Downed the price. Spun stuff off it. It’s just very difficult.” 

Then came Rebellion, a company owned by two Oxford-educated brothers, Chris and Jason Kingsley, who have no shareholders to placate. Jason has his own YouTube history channel. His approach to Whitaker’s is respectful; the logic is broadening its reputation and exploring digital possibilities. No one is planning a redesign in comic sans. 

I am still not sure anyone at Rebellion yet knows how difficult it is to produce a data-heavy 1,184-page annual of small, dense type and a commitment to accuracy in much less time than usual, with a big loss of institutional memory. It was a big ask when they bought it, and we have all had a few complications since then. But the new editor, Michael Rowley, is remarkably chipper and the Kingsleys seem like can-do people. Good news in grim times. 

Matthew Engel edited 12 volumes of “Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack” and all three editions of the shorter-lived “Sportspages Almanac”

Whitaker’s 2020
edited by Ruth Northey
Bloomsbury, 1,184pp, £100

This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain