The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for two and a half centuries considered in the public eye the reigning resource for scholarly research, recently announced that it was ceasing publication in print and would henceforth be available only in electronic form.
As usual, the doddering dinosaur is behind the curve. The company had had the chance to go high-tech in 1985 with a Microsoft partnership; somewhat understandably, it declined to partner with the then fledgling software company — which released its Encarta, its own, successful, encyclopedia on CD-ROM in 1993.
The Encyclopedia Britannica company did launch a CD-ROM in 1989, four years before Encarta came along, but it did so under the name of Compton’s, another encyclopedia brand it owned, so as not to tarnish the venerable Britannica brand. That product, which received positive reviews, was nevertheless not the first computer-based encyclopedia; Grolier’s had come out with a DOS version in 1985.
Britannica’s print encyclopedia continued to dominate the market even after Grolier’s innovation, of course, because the proportion of prospective encyclopedia customers who desired a high-tech version was very small. However, six years after Britannica’s revenues peaked in 1990, it declared bankruptcy (though it was bought by a Swiss businessman and survives — but barely — to this day). People, it seems, were just not buying print encyclopedias like they used to.
And why bother? The Encyclopaedia Britannica, though a formidable feat of scholarship, had long been overhyped. It was certainly always impressive looking — and still is: The final print edition, published in 2010 and still for sale (“while supplies last!”), consists of forty-four million words packed into thirty-two volumes.
It has, however, long been mostly a prestige product, meant to be admired by visitors to one’s home who marvel at the sophistication of parents who would spend four figures to be sure that their children have nothing but the best trove of knowledge at their fingertips. (The 2010 edition retails for about $1,400.)
But those fingertips, it seems, rarely touched the meticulously prepared, exhaustively researched encyclopedia; one survey determined that few customers consulted it more than once a year. For many, it was just another feature of home decor, another mark of status.
Britannica Online and the DVD version are presumably more well thumbed, and several years ago, Britannica announced plans to develop a content model more along the lines of Wikipedia, in which the public would be able to submit new content to Britannica or revise existing content, although it would be clearly distinguished from content produced by Britannica’s staff and scholarly contributors. (A cursory examination of Britannica’s website shows no reference to such content, however.)
What does the epochal end of Britannica’s presence in print mean for writers, editors, and editorial researchers and fact-checkers? You tell me — when was the last time you cracked the spine of The Encyclopaedia Britannica? For many years, we have been able to go straight to the (online) source for a great deal of information, checking information against government, business, and organizational websites.
And when we want objective information, we consult news sites, and online compendia like Wikipedia. And though I note in this post that Wikipedia is regrettably inferior to The Encyclopaedia Britannica in writing quality, is was found in a study to be essentially just as accurate – that is, highly, but not flawlessly, accurate.
Print publications just can’t compete with online sources for immediacy. If you want to know the state of knowledge or attitudes about a particular phenomenon in 1912, certainly, you can hunt for the eleventh edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica and enlighten yourself. But new editions necessarily take years to produce, whereas websites can be updated on demand.
History books, in whatever perhaps unbooklike form they may take in the future, will note this period as a significant turning point in information production, processing, and retrieval. In the meantime, we’re living in the transition; I still read many books, but I read — not just research — online extensively, too. (And I rarely touch a print magazine or newspaper.) We must be nimble and accept the future with good grace.