The End of an Era for “The Encyclopaedia Britannica”

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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.

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6 thoughts on “The End of an Era for “The Encyclopaedia Britannica””

  1. True, but there is a darker side of this. The control of information is easier in the cyberworld than it is in the physical one. While an encyclopedia is something not to fear, there are other documents one person might consider knowledge that the other finds too provocative and pull the trigger to get rid of it.

    Since it is all digital, it means it disappears. I’ve seen two books disappear from my Amazon Kindle Reader and Nook App. I’ve read worse from others.

    True, I read more online than offline, but the threat to accessible knowledge is always a dangerous one.

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

  2. It is with such sadness that I receive this news.
    It is kinda nostalgic to remember flipping over the pages of an encyclopedia in our school library.

    But then business to survive needs to adapt.
    And the fact that more and more people are reading online, time has come for Britannica to accept the fact that we are entering the digital age.

    Thanks for this article.

  3. I grew up with a ’60s edition of the Britannica. Being obsessively curious, I used it at least several times a week. But I was the only one in the family that used it. In my teens, an off-hand comment led me to set a goal to read the entire thing, which I did in just over a year.

    Sometime in the ’80s my parents bought a new edition. I took it to university with me because, again, I was the only one that used it. I was disappointed however with how little it was updated, especially with newer science and technology discoveries. The only electronics-related article was on the 1947 invention of the transistor at Bell Labs, the same as the ’60s edition. The integrated circuit wasn’t even mentioned. I gave up on the Britannica as a reference resource at that point. It hardly qualified as a resource for scholarly research, at least not for any research conducted since the ’50s. As you said it was mainly a status symbol.

    I wasn’t at all surprised when they ran into financial troubles. They were just milking it, with hardly any updates. I’m not surprised by this latest move either. I expect to see them disappear sooner or later. They just don’t get the new world we live in.

  4. I, for one, share Leif’s concern. The control of information is the ultimate power, allowing the controller to shape the future by manipulation of the past (records). We see over and over how our perception of the past is shaped and molded by sinister and hidden forces in order to prepare us for the future as they wish it to be. The death of mass-printed reference works will make such manipulation far easier for unscrupulous people than it was for their predecessors (names you may recognize: Mao Tse Tung, Josef Stalin, Joseph Goebbels, etc.). I recognize that Brittanica must change to survive but I’m still saddened by this unfortunate adaptation.

    There’s also the real threat of destruction of vast amounts of records by terrorists using ElectroMagnetic Pulse attack. While it would scarcely be possible for attackers to annihilate every printed encyclopedia in one fell swoop they could, theoretically, obliterate entire libraries full of data with one well-placed EMP pulse. Granted, the world won’t collapse if we forget that Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin or what year Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled, but a people without a past are a people without a future and losing the steady, substantial convenience of a printed reference for the sake of expediency puts our future on ground made just that much more shakey.

  5. Yes, Mark, you are right when you say we search the web for information (and that word echoes in your text). However, it was not just information that was available on the Enc.Brit. – well written articles, to be read with time and pleasure, to know (keyword in this debate) a bit further after having carefully read it, in a search not just for data. That’s the sort of tradition that’s dying with the end of the famous printed publication. After all, one might ask who has the time for that – as if we were not the ones responsible for spending our own time…

    In the end, I would ask what’s the purpose of all that data-search-Wikipedia frenzy? Are we becoming better people only because we can access online data through mobile phones or any other gadget – while we still do not clean our own table after having eaten alone and in silence in any full (of the same people!) fast-food restaurant? Someone have already asked where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Maybe he should first ask where is the knowledge we have lost in information.

    Anyway, good food for thought.

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