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Encyclopaedia Britannica Calls It a Day on Its Print Version: Will You Miss It?

Posted on the 15 March 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost

Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a day on its print version: Will you miss it?

Britannica left on the shelf? Photo credit: John Morrison:

Print has been dealt yet another blow: Encyclopaedia Britannica announced on Wednesday that they will no longer publish a print edition. Over 7 million sets of the weighty tomes have been printed since the first edition was published in Edinburgh in 1768 (you can buy a replica copy for £69). The final hardcover edition of Britannica, which some believe will become a collector’s item, is available for £1,195, comprising 32 volumes, and weighing over 9 stone, or almost 60 kilograms, in total.

Sales have fallen sharply. The Financial Times reported that this decision was inevitable – just 8,500 sets were sold in 2010, compared to a peak of 120,000 in 1990, reflecting the shift to online sources. The Atlantic made the point that for the price of the final set you could buy 10 iPhones. Dan Gilmour, in the Guardian, credited Microsoft Encarta, “a CD-Rom product the software company launched in the early 1990s and maintained until 2009” with heralding Britannica’s demise, primarily because it was so much cheaper to buy.

Wikirivals. The move to digital will place Encyclopedia Britannica in direct competition with Wikipedia (described as “more whizzy, democratic and up-to-the-minute” by Craig Brown in the Daily Mail). Wikipedia, though user edited, is free to use and has more than 3.7 million articles, compared with the Britannica’s 100,000 articles, accessible for an annual fee of £49.95. Britannica‘s chances of truly rivaling the ubiquitous online encyclopedia seem to be slim: The Financial Times quoted Jorge Cauz, president of the company, “We could be printing money if we were as featured as Wikipedia.”

But not everyone is online. Stephanie Rosalia, a school librarian from New York, argued in the New York Times online debate that there is a digital divide, and people without high-speed internet connections, in rural areas, or in prison will suffer from this decision.

You can’t believe everything you read. Moreover, some argue that Wikipedia’s user-generated content is unreliable. However, Megan Macardle in The Atlantic pointed out that in 2005, Nature Magazine found that in scientific entries, Wikipedia contained an average of 3.86 mistakes per article, only slightly more than Britannica with 2.92 (some of Britannica’s errors corrected by Wikipedia are listed in this Wikipedia entry). Accuracy seems to be a historical problem: Craig Brown in the Daily Mail reported that “the chief editor of the (1790s) third edition, one George Gleig, decided unilaterally that Newton was wrong about gravity and announced that it was, in fact, caused by ‘the classical element of fire’.”

The third edition of the Britannica claimed that Newton was wrong and that gravity was actually caused by “the classical element of fire”.

Wikipedia vs. Britannica. But Dan Gilmour, in the Guardian, argued that Britannica’s coverage of topics that don’t appeal to Wikipedia’s volunteer editors is “vastly better”, although Wikipedia has articles on “topics that are of interest to lots of people but don’t make the cut in a printed book.” Alexander Chee worried in the New York Times online debate that by relying on unpaid content, we devalue true expertise, arguing that “all information should be as democratically available as possible, but I’m averse to it being democratically produced.”

What do you think – will you miss the print version of Britannica?

The wonder of serendipity. Stephanie Rosalia argued in the New York Times online debate that “the Internet and its search boxes do not support or encourage a sense of wonder,” while others described the unique print experience of looking up one thing and finding something completely different. The Daily Mail quoted Sir Kenneth Clark: “One leaps from one subject to another, fascinated as much by the play of mind and the idiosyncrasies of their authors as by the facts and dates.” In the New York Times online debate, A.J. Jacobs agreed that these serendipitous juxtapositions were “key to Britannica’s charm,” while Alexander Chee argued that “to find only the thing you are looking for transforms the limits of your imagination into the literal borders of what you know, and this is never a good thing.”

Mad, bad and dangerous knowledge? Encyclopedias have enjoyed a strange and interesting history. Jacobs recounted in his contribution to the New York Times online debate how “in 1751, the Britannica’s predecessor – Diderot’s Encyclopedie – was deemed so dangerous by King Louis XV that he had the volumes locked up in the Bastille alongside murderers and madmen.” Ernest Shackleton carried the ninth edition on his exploratory voyage to Antarctica, but “ended up burning the volumes for kindling.”

Eleventh Heaven? Fans agree that the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia, published in Cambridge in 1910 was the apogee of the series. Craig Brown of the Daily Mail “picked one up for a song a decade ago” and described it lovingly as “a masterpiece, with contributions from great minds such as Bertrand Russell, Edmund Gosse and T.H.Huxley…winningly personal, even eccentric, with the contributors allowed, and even encouraged, to offer their opinions and prejudices.”  Though Josh Walsh in the Independent pointed out that this edition only included Marie Curie, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, following her Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, in the entry on her husband, Pierre.

Ever swallowed an encyclopaedia? Author A.J. Jacobs read all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a “stunt” for his book: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. In so doing, he joined an exclusive club, whose members include George Bernard Shaw, heart surgeon Michael DeBakey and C.S. Forester, the author of Horatio Hornblower, who found it so riveting that he read the whole thing twice.

End of an era. Hans Koning, The New Yorker writer, once called the Britannica “the culmination of the Enlightenment, the naïve belief that all human knowledge could be presented with a single point of view”. John McWhorter argued in the New York Times online debate that this “era has passed”, and noted that though he bought a set in 2000, he still hasn’t “gotten around to taking the plastic wrap off of six of the volumes.”

N is for Nostalgia. Even Phoebe Ayers, a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation had to admit in the New York Times online debate that Britannica volumes had an “intensely satisfying completeness.” John Walsh summed it up in the Independent: “It’s a sad day for fetishists of gold lettering. It’s a bitter blow for door-to-door salesmen. It’s a major frustration for recently nominated godparents wondering what christening gift would combine the solid, the stylish and the edifying. The print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is no more.”

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