Breaking News: Sinking of the Britannica

Holy Moses!

[Hebrew Moshe (flourished 14th–13th century bc), Hebrew prophet, teacher, and leader who, in the 13th century bce (before the Common Era, or bc), delivered his people from Egyptian slavery. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica.]

They are discontinuing the print version of the Encyclopædia Britannica!

[The Encyclopædia Britannica (Latin for “British Encyclopædia”), published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., is a general knowledge English-language encyclopedia that is available in print, as a DVD, and on the Internet. It is written and continuously updated by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 expert contributors. It is regarded as one of the most scholarly of encyclopedias.” Source: Wikipedia.]

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Encyclopædia Britannica is the oldest English-language general encyclopedia. It first published in 1768, when it began to appear in Edinburgh, Scotland. During its lifetime about 2 million sets were printed. The last edition was in 2010. Even though the next edition was already being made readworthy and expected by the end of this year, there will be no 2012 edition.

There are other famous general knowledge reference books–World Book, Columbia, Funk & Wagnalls (sank in 1997), Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (not be be confused with his son, Pliny the Tiny.) But nothing quite commands the place in the history of reference literature as the Encyclopædia Britannica.

An unofficial study found that more students copied more passages from the Encyclopædia Britannica than any other reference work in the history of plagiarism.

The end of the print edition is significant for two main reasons.

The most obvious is the loss of volumes that can be used to press flowers, straighten photographs, prop open doors and provide ballast for hot air balloons.

The second is that this moment symbolizes in a very literary way the transition from Literacy 1.0 to Literacy 2.0. Analog has officially turned over the mantle of information to digital. The old literacy is still valid and in play, but the new literacies are in the ascendancy.

While the cost of paper, shipping and hernia lawsuits might be contributing factors, the fundamental reason that the Encyclopædia Britannica print version is no more is that information in print cannot be instantly updated, meticulously searched or contain an entry for video recording accompanied by an animation showing how an old analog videocassette recorder works.

The writing was on the wall back in 1993 when Microsoft launched Encarta on CD-ROM, the first encyclopedia to never see print. Encarta, which was based on Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, lasted a mere 16 years until it lost out to the established encyclopedias going online and the hybrid upstart Wikipedia.

[Wikipedia is a free Internet-based encyclopaedia, started in 2001, that operates under an open-source management style. It is overseen by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.Wikipedia uses a collaborative software known as wiki that facilitates the creation and development of articles. Although some highly publicized problems have called attention to Wikipedia’s editorial process, they have done little to dampen public use of the resource, which is one of the most-visited sites on the Internet. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica.]

The editors at Encyclopædia Britannica are not in mourning. In fact, the discontinuation of the print version will take a load off. The volume of information amassed by the editors for every edition dwarfs the space available in print. Editors spend vast amounts of time and energy trying to whittle all that info down into 32 volumes. The labor and print costs drive the price of the printed volume up to $1,400. Meanwhile, the basic subscription to the online version is $17 a year, or $1.99 a month–the Encyclopædia Britannica has had an online presence for 20 years. The site gets 580 million visitors a year. More than 85 percent of digital product sales are from bulk subscriptions by educational institutions.

No one needs to worry about the future of Encyclopædia Britannica, the company. The print edition accounts for less than 1% of revenue.

“We’d like to think our tradition is not to print, but to bring scholarly knowledge to the people,” said Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopædia Britannica, and presumably the man who fired the torpedo that sank the print version after 244 years of service to Her Majesty.

“The perception of what is comprehensive has changed significantly,” Cauz said. “No one is expecting total comprehensiveness. The value proposition in our case is to be a reliable source. The print set can’t bring that reliability because it gets obsolete so quickly and because it doesn’t have all the material that is online.”

Good news for those who remain nostalgic for print and would like a 32-volume collector’s edition that can break the back of most any bookshelf purchased at IKEA: The company has about 4,000 sets left for sale.

Encyclopædia Britannica is taking advantage of the death of its print version by offering free one-week subscriptions to its online publication.

That’s a prætty sweet deal.



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