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2012 April 2 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Britannica Marks the End of an Encyclopedia Era

“All things must pass,” wrote the late musician George Harrison, formerly of the Beatles, as did a writer of the Bible’s Book of Matthew.

Such is true with another old and venerable institution, Encyclopedia Britannica. In March Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. (www.britannica.com) announced that after 244 years of existence, its print version will cease publication.

The announcement was no surprise. Collier’s Encyclopedia was last printed in 1998, Encyclopedia Americana in 2006. For Encyclopedia Britannica the writing was on the virtual wall.

The main reason for the demise of print encyclopedias is the rise of digital encyclopedias, first CD-ROM versions of print encyclopedias then Internet-only encyclopedias. The king of them all, the dragon slayer, is Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org).

Making encyclopedic quantities of information available digitally is far more efficient, far less expensive, and far more convenient than print. Along with its digital underpinnings, Wikipedia’s other main claims to fame are that its information is user generated rather than written by experts, and it’s free.

Some of the contributors of Wikipedia’s articles are indeed experts, but not all are. More errors make their way through with Wikipedia, though not significantly more, according to a widely discussed study published in the December 2005 issue of Nature magazine.

Wikipedia is self-correcting, with users typically being able to correct mistakes they come across. But sometimes corrections get changed back to mistakes by the original authors of the articles, who take aggressive ownership of their work. Wikipedia’s democratization of knowledge means that experts can wind up being pushed out by amateurs.

Still, you can’t beat Wikipedia for its scope and overall usefulness, provided that you don’t believe everything you read and that you confirm important information elsewhere. As of this writing, it contained more than 3.8 million articles in English, compared to Encyclopedia Britannica’s 66,000 articles.

Encyclopedia Britannica’s last print edition will be the 2010 edition, which has seen only 8,000 sets sold. At its peak, with the 1990 edition, 120,000 print sets were sold.

The granddaddy of today’s encyclopedias will continue its online version, with subscriptions continuing to cost $69.95 per year (the company offers a one-week free trial). This is more expensive than free but a lot less expensive than the $1,395 cost of a print encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica tries to differentiate itself from Wikipedia by contending it provides “answers you can trust.”

Time will tell whether those answers are that much more trustworthy to generate enough paid subscribers so it can continue as a going concern. On the other hand, Encyclopedia Britannica makes most of its money from specialized educational products for subjects such as math, science, and English. Only about 15 percent of revenue reportedly comes from subscriptions to the online encyclopedia and less than 1 percent from the print encyclopedia.

Like Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica has its quirks. It originated in Scotland in 1768, though it has been published in the U.S. since the early 1900s, and the company has been headquartered in Chicago since the 1920s. Despite this, the encyclopedia has for the most part maintained its British spellings, with “color” for instance spelled “colour.” Sometimes it calls itself Encyclopaedia Britannica, using the British spelling, other times Encyclopedia Britannica.

More substantively, not all the information in Encyclopedia Britannica over the years, including the present, has been updated in a timely enough manner, and like Wikipedia it also has received its share of criticism about the accuracy of its information and the expertise of its authors.

Just as no one is perfect, no publication, let alone one of such scope, could possibly be error free. Encyclopedia Britannica has a storied history and has attracted world-class contributors since its inception. Among the authors of its articles have been Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Carl Sagan, Sigmund Freud, Alfred North Whitehead, Henry Ford, Milton Friedman, Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu.

Though venerable, Encyclopedia Britannica is far from the world’s first encyclopedia. The oldest one still in existence, Naturalis Historia, was written around 77 A.D. by the Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder.

But Encyclopedia Britannica’s multiple thick volumes packed with information have long had a significant presence in schools, libraries, and homes. In the future, for many, the print version will be missed.

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