"The only perfect reference work" Nelson's Perpetual Loose-Leaf Encyclopaedia

From Popular Mechanics from 1910 comes this advertisement for Nelson's Perpetual Loose-Leaf Encyclopaedia.

Reviewed by the New York Times in 1908, the set was supposed to be

"A book that never grows old, that is, never antiquated, that will give answer years after its publication to the most modern of queries -- such a book, one imagines, may be found in the great classic of poetry whose verse, metaphorically speaking, breathes the spirit of perpetual youth." Nelson's claimed it had a permanent editorial staff who were "constantly on watch for all important new facts for the benefit of Nelson's subscribers"
It was advertised heavily in many types of publications (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Loose leaf was big business in the early part of the 20th Century. Companies were offering "a loose-leaf system for every purpose." One loose-leaf company began in New York City in 1908 and still makes at-a-glance calendars to this day. Other loose-leaf titles flourished such as Nelson new loose-leaf medicine, Winston's cumulative loose-leaf encyclopedia (read online) and Oxford loose-leaf surgery (read online) Nelson's was still going strong in 1930 where a set cost $99.50 plus $6/year for updates -- buy a set, get a free bookcase -- Nelson's stopped publishing updates sometime in the 1930s. Thomas Nelson & Sons is still around today, the world's largest Christian publisher, but their company history curiously makes no mention of their innovative encyclopaedia. See also: "A Solution to the Problem of Updating Encyclopedias" by Eric M. Hammer and Edward N. Zalta, 1997.


  1. Incredible! I actually have a set of these from around the turn of the century, including several years’ updates. I bought them for next to nothing at a library sale (donated, not in circulation). I know enough about books as collectibles not to simply hoard older collections, which are often worth next to nothing due to lack of consumer demand, but I bought these because of the excellent binding, complete with face engraving and the beautiful mixture of linotype and early photographs.
    What a treat to see the collection highlighted on my favorite blog!

    1. Could you be so kind as to take a high quality photo of your edition of the encyclopedia and put it on Wikipedia? We are still missing a picture of Nelsons and an update package. Thanks a lot for your consideration, Mirko Junge.

      1. Well, this has to win a prize for most-belated response! I’ll be happy to get a photo off as soon as I can.

      2. Well, I must apologize. I do not have the Nelson’s set, but instead the Bufton’s Universal Cyclopaedia, published 1919, with supplements to 1928. I’ll check the Wikipedia entry for that and send a photo if needed.

        1. What I am really interested in is a photo of an encyclopaedia with suplements like Nelson’s. Just to illustrate that the update idea is not new to encyclopaedias. It would be very much appreachiated if you could provide a photo of the encyclopaedia with the ‘updates’ to Wikipedia commons.
          Thank for your help, Mirko Junge.

          (This must be a very late response to a response, also).

  2. “See that little bar and nut?” is just begging to be folded into a meme somehow.

    I used to to admin work at an engineering firm. All their books of standards and regulations were set up along the same lines, but in three-ring binders. I used to have to swap pages every couple of months when some board somewhere decided to change “3.8 meters” to “3.9 meters” on page 451-L or somesuch.

  3. Legal treatises still do this (though with varying mechanisms–some just a 3-ring, some far more clever). It’s a rite of passage, since it’s the interns and first-year associates who are set the brain-dribbling task of following the instructions on the newly-arrived pages: “Discard pages X-Y and replace with pages A-B in the supplement.” Repeat until spirit shrivels and drips out nose.

    1. I was coming in to say exactly what you said.
      I used to work at a law library, and dreaded updating the looseleaf section, because those pages are SUPER thing and easy to tear.

      Luckily, we had someone come in once in a while who did it for us, but whenever we got a whole bunch of new pages, I would have to sometimes take care of it.

  4. I work for a company that still produces something like this. It’s for technology reports and the like.

  5. I just recently got a job working as a technical services assistant in a law library. My job description involves preparing new books for checkout with barcodes etc, opening the mail, shelving new issues of periodicals, and replacing the pages in looseleaf binders. LOTS of looseleaf binders. Some update monthly, some quarterly, a couple every two weeks, a page at a time scattered throughout 15 binders stuffed overfull with thousands and thousands of sheets of onion paper. You would think that the invention of the internet would mean the library could stop updating these, but…

    1. Yeah, I did too . . . but what actually happened is that the invention of computers made it so West and all those guys could generate their paper a lot faster, which is the last thing they needed.

      And it’s timely, too: lawyers and law librarians across the country are finishing up the annual ritual of taking out all the outdated looseleaf pages and pocket parts and inserting the new ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if the recycling plant had to hire temps about now.

      (IAAL, and I’m kinda morbidly curious to find out how many acres of trees my profession uses each year.)

      (captcha: “and beyond”. I really, really want to believe that the previous poster got “to infinity”.)

  6. In the prison where I used to work, the Standing Orders were kept in a loose leaf binder and we were always obliged to update it whenever a new boneheaded directive came down from on high. A major waste of time. Just about every bureaucracy seems to have some equivalent.

  7. I work for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, and our copies of the Zoning Code are kept this way. We get updates every quarter, and yeah, it comes with a set of instructions to replace pages 457-C through 457-H with a new set of pages 457-C through 457-J (for example).

    The code’s also online, but it’s actually easier to use the hard copy. I suppose this is helped by the fact that we generally hear about new ordinances that get passed that are relevant to our work, so if something’s happened within the last couple of months we’re likely to know about it and not get tripped up by the out-of-date hard copy.

  8. Thanks, Anon @ #4, for the insight into the other side of the process… I used to work at a printing house in Florida that produced much of that material, and always wondered. I actually harbored a suspicion that most places never bothered, and kept stacks of shrink-wrapped supplements next to the original code.

  9. One word: Fortran documentation.

    Meters long. I’m trying to remember the binding mechanism. I think it involved (but was not limited to) steel rods passing through the binding, down the length of the table.

  10. As many have pointed out law libraries are one of the last users of this sort of thing. You can’t teach old partners, new tricks. Interestingly, they were also one of the first mass uses of full text searching. But on a similar note, the Code of Federal Regulations is updated annually on a quarterly schedule. Every quarter, you get new volumes for ~1/4 of the titles, so that none of the volumes is more than a year old. Every year they change the color of the cover, so that you can see which volumes have been updates so far this year. If there are no changes in a volume, they send you a new cover to glue to the outside of the old one.

  11. Aarrrgghhh… flashbacks to when I was in the RAF and got given the job of incorporating the latest set of amendments into a technical or administrative manual. Now and again you’d find that the manual was about four Amendment Lists behind, so you’d have to get four sets of page updates and either do them successively or (if someone had thoughtfully included an index listing what amendments state each page should be) collate them into a single consolidated amendment pack.

    The phrase ‘Amendment List’ long ago entered RAF slang as shorthand for ‘Oops, change of plan’ as the phrase “AL1 to that, we’re now doing this instead…”

    Amending a classified publication was even worse; you had to account for every page added and removed, and then shred the latter with two witnesses, one an officer, to sign off that every page had been dealt with properly. (I was once the only commissioned officer at a small isolated unit. I soon discovered how many bits of routine trivia need an officer to sign them off.)

    Now I’m a lawyer, and we have nice online legal databases. But the authoritative book on Enlish Law, Halsbury’s Laws of England, is still also produced in its sixty-odd volume hardcopy form. Using it is a ritual involving finding the relevant volume for your query, then consulting the annual update volume, then the monthly update journal. Not surprisingly, the online version is much more convenient – as long as you are with an organisation that pays to subscribe to it.

  12. Working at a record chain in Boston in the early eighties we had a “Phonolog” catalog in every store.

    A couple thousand pages, with monthly updates that had to be inserted. Some stores were religious about keeping the catalogs updated, others, not so much. Definitely, my least favorite part of the job.

  13. I worked for an accountant in the 1980s, and we used to get updates to all of the info and regulation binders this way. I used to hate when the packet was a whole bunch of ‘replace this one page with these two pages’ directions. The best days were when it was a big packet that represented only one or two large replacements. Ahh…memories.

  14. And in a completely different direction from the examples above, the Hârn fantasy role-playing setting was organized as the “Encyclopedia Hârnica” — every time a new regional or city module came out, you could slice it apart and slot it into an ever-growing (and notoriously slowly growing) superdocument.

    1. Geekman – not a problem with the pagination, as the books are divided into section, part and sometimes even paragraph. “Replace Section 8 part 3 with the new Section 8 part 3”

      1. Hehe it’s actually worse than than you think, Geekman. For one publisher in particular, if the need arises to add in material in the middle of a section, they add sub-pages, IE pp 22,075 thru pp 22,075-12 would be 6 sheets. But then on occasion it becomes necessary to go in and add material to the beginning of THAT, which leads to the joyful existence of pp 22,075-9.1 thru 22,075-9.37… and so on. Which leads to a whole lot of pages with a tiny note at the bottom saying “Note: The next page is xx,xxx”, just to reassure people that the librarian didn’t misplace some pages in the middle. I’m really not sure if I’m complaining or being impressed by this, to be honest.

  15. This was the 1910 version of Wikipedia, only with a smaller editorial staff.

    I particularly like the Brooklyn Eagle review: There is no other Loose-Leaf Encyclopaedia in the field and Nelson’s is the best that it is possible to purchase.” It’s true by definition, but doesn’t tell you a thing!

  16. I know why they stopped publishing it: they forgot to feed the “permanent editorial staff.” Happens all the time.

  17. A sample page number from one of the loose-leafs in our library: 2-142Z.36(27). There are some publishers who will do anything to avoid reprinting an entire chapter.

  18. Sorting out what is supposed to be in the catalog/dictionary/policy-manual/whatever after someone misfiles or loses a few updates must be a joy and a half.

  19. Pharmacy publications are still in this format, too – though fortunately the same information has become available on a CD, also updated quarterly, for the last few years. Can’t get it online yet… When I started working in one pharmacy, there were six years of updates still in their shrinkwrap, in a box.

  20. I used to work in a military bureaucracy – we had a whole ROOM full of ring binders of orders, directives, circulars and other asinine rubbish dating back at least a decade. Thankfully, I wasn’t the sucker who had to update the binders.

  21. It’s too bad I didn’t see this when it was originally posted. I have the great luck of having both the regular encyclopedia and the medicine encyclopedia having acquired them at a small library in Wisconsin along with several boxes of medical books from the library of a doctor who had apparently donated them to the library, or his estate did. Also have a Greys Anatomy copyright from the 1870’s (they are all packed up at the moment, can’t check the dates).

    The interesting thing about the loose-leaf encyclopedias that I have is that the original owner had typed up information he’d researched and updated them with those pages.

    They are truly cool books to have.

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