R.I.P. Encyclopædia Britannica

From 1768 to 2010, the Encyclopædia Britannica was published every two years, providing a comprehensive, authoritative and iconic tome of knowledge. Because it was expensive to own, many people bought the Britannica on installments, and having one in one’s house became just as much of a status symbol as a new Cadillac in the driveway. What made the Encyclopædia Britannica particularly distinct, though, was the fact that despite being published in the United States since 1901, it has maintained its use of British spelling.

However, in March 2012, Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., announced that the company would cease production of its expansive print encyclopedia set. “It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” observes Cauz, who also remarked that the death knell for the print edition of Encyclopædia Britannica sounded long ago.

It certainly does come as a considerable surprise that the print edition was published as recently as 2010. Since Wikipedia’s founding in 2001 as a free, collaborative multilingual online encyclopedia, it has proved itself as a dynamic fountain of knowledge that is updated more quickly and efficiently than any print encyclopedia publisher could hope for. Because of that and its dedication to providing accurate information, many academics and scholars have come to praise Wikipedia, despite their initial resistance. Moreover, the advent of Wikipedia and sites like it have made it easier for people to access information without searching for the proper volume and proper page. Indeed, there is an inimitable tactile and olfactory sensation that is part and parcel of the process of looking up facts in a book. Nonetheless, the information on Wikipedia is kept fresh up to the minute, and accessing the website is a less cumbersome process by far – after all, which is easier to carry; a thirty-odd volume encyclopedia set, or a portable computer with internet access? “People still buy, read and love print books,” says Michael Norris, a senior trade books analyst at Simba Information. “But the relationship they have with a novel is very different than what they have with a piece of information they need.”

Without a doubt, ending the print production of Encyclopædia Britannica was very much a practical measure. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. very wisely adapted to the advent of the digital age, producing digital editions beginning in 1994. Before long, the iconic set that Time magazine would call the “patriarch of the library” would only account for only one per cent of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.’s income, being trumped fifteen-fold by the revenues from the online edition. The other remaining percentage of the company’s profits derive from the sales of its educational multimedia products and services designed for school-aged children. But perhaps this change, as gradual as it was, was only inevitable. Then again, every end only comes before a new beginning. Says Jorge Cauz, “The younger generation consumes data differently now, and we want to be there.”

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