Another One Bites the Dust

The world’s best-known encyclopedia announced today that it is producing no more print editions. After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica is going completely digital. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds.

The books were first published in Edinburgh, Scotland, before the United States existed. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Americans began to buy the books, and the door-to-door technique was perfected about fifty years later. The company’s first digital reference was created via LexisNexis in 1981. CD-ROMs came out in 1989 and Britannica went to the Web in 1994.

During the last twenty years, as people increasingly turned to the Internet with their questions, the company saw sales of the print edition dwindle, and the product struggled to balance Web traffic and needs for subscription revenue. The final decision to put it all online makes sense, of course. It’s costly and painstaking to produce a new edition of an enormous print product, but a database is boundless and can be continually updated and corrected at a relatively small cost to the publisher. Anyone who has published independently can attest to the frustration of finding an error in the print edition. A mistake in an e-book is simple to correct; the change can be accomplished in a matter of an hour.

The company will concentrate on digital publishing and educational products, and the brand may become the equivalent of Wikipedia with fact-checking: Britannica Online allows readers to revise its entries “which are then published after editorial review and revision if necessary.”

Another cultural icon bites the dust.

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5 thoughts on “Another One Bites the Dust

  1. Laura Hile

    I guess this was inevitable, given the cost of publication. Still, I will miss the heft and feel of a Britannica encyclopedia. College textbooks will likely go this same route, my sons tell me.

    I am hopelessly old school when it comes to textbooks, because my memory “sees” the location of the information. Not so with my Kindle. For convenience I bring it to morning prayer so that I can follow along with whoever is giving the devotional — the Kindle fits in my purse. But a hardbound Bible is much easier to navigate. Plus, I can flip through the pages to find a passage I “kind of” remember or have underlined. The Kindle is convenient, but to my visual mind, the pages all look “the same.”

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    1. Laura Hile

      There is that.

      I suppose we will have to revert to older, more antiquated print versions of the encyclopedia? And then there is this bit, thrown in at the end of the article:

      … the brand may become the equivalent of Wikipedia with fact-checking: Britannica Online allows readers to revise its entries “which are then published after editorial review and revision if necessary.”

      Instant revision is a wonderful thing. Or is it? At what point do we reinvent the facts to please ourselves?.

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  2. LucyParker

    One of my dearest board members, now deceased, put himself through medical school selling the Britannica. He had four sons who would recite things from the encyclopedia, kind of like Music Man’s spiel. It was a privilege to work for this man, who had the highest integrity of anyone I’ve met. Now his son is my board president, very much like his father.

    So, in reading this blog, I’m a bit wistful at the end of an era. But I’m grateful that it was part of my life, and that makes me smile. Thanks for this, Robin!

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  3. Robin Helm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Terry. I always love learning little bits about the lives of all the friends I meet through JAFF and this blog.

    I guess I understand that things have to change, but I don’t always like it, and I don’t think that it’s always for the best.

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Why yes, we DO want a piece of your mind. ;-)

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