After 244 years, numerous editions and over 7 million multi-volume gold-lettered sets sold — the Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print. The company usually publishes a new edition of 32 volumes every two years but the 2010 edition will be the last. While noting that “everyone will want to call this the end of an era,” Britannica president Jorge Cauz says that the change is more a part of the evolution of the company and that, as CNN puts it, “the death knell sounded long ago.”
While a full bound set of the Britannica was once a “possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class” in the 1950s — on a par with “a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den,” as the New York Times puts it — the Internet has changed everything. According to Cauz, the print encyclopedia only account for 1 percent of the company’s total sales. The contents of the entire encyclopedia are now online and about half a million subscribers pay $70 to access them, vs. the $1,395 price tag for the print volumes. Indeed, only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold; the remaining 4,000 will reside in a warehouse until purchased. An online subscription also provides access to videos, original documents and mobile applications.
The Internet has not only changed the format in which people access information. Now in its eleventh year, Wikipedia offers a trove of information (3.9 million articles vs. Britannica’s 120,000) for free (provided that one is online) and is written and edited by unnamed contributors. In contrast, the Britannica’s articles are the work of experts, the 2010 edition having more than 4,000 contributors including golfer Arnold Palmer on the Masters Tournament. While Wikipedia has been derided for its errors and inaccuracies, it has now been “gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics,” notes the New York Times. In an age of instant updates and revisions, the need to have this or that expert’s education opinions has lessened and thence demand for those weighty tomes.
That said, the actual, physical copies of an encyclopedia do still have their place and not just for serving as doorstops. Libraries still keep reference books on their shelves especially on specialized topics such as folklore or music. Encyclopedias written in foreign languages may not be so readily available online. I have a huge reference work on the classical tradition on the floor under my desk and, while it is certainly convenient to open a new tab in my web browser and look things up on Perseus, browsing through entries in a print encyclopedia enables one to make discoveries as one starts with the Roman god Janus, turns to the Jesuits and then, flipping a few pages back, to Islam.
Did your household — does you household — have a set of encyclopedias? Or did your parents, cleaning out the basement, ask you to put them up for sale on Craigslist?
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