Encyclopaedia Britannica ends print editions – does anyone care?

In the “oh no!” department, the New York Times is reporting that the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print. This was first published in 1768. For old fogies, at least, the loss marks some sort of watershed.

The 15th edition of the Britannica. Image source?--Wikipedia

To illustrate one reason for its decline, here is an article on Encyclopaedia Britannica from modern-day rival Wikipedia. For comparison, here is Encyclopaedia Britannica’s article on itself.

Here’s how the NYT article described the shift:

The last edition of the encyclopedia will be the 2010 edition, a 32-volume set that weighs in at 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a Chicago-based company, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

My parents had an old, post-war set of World Book Encyclopedias. From infancy, I would happily sit beside the bookcase and create small mountains of volumes, flipping through the photos and diagrams, trying to remember where to find my favorites. (Which was a challenge before I could read or alphabetize!) I gather encyclopedia diving was a hobby shared by other bookworms too. (And thank you Mom and Dad, for letting me have that pleasure.)

In high school I bought a used set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition which (as described by the EB entry)  “consisted of 28 volumes in three parts serving different functions: the Micropædia: Ready Reference and Index, Macropædia: Knowledge in Depth, and Propædia: Outline of Knowledge.” It turns out I really didn’t like that system. It was vexing to have to jump from volume to volume, and cross-indexed entries. (Editions matter!)

Those linear feet of heavy books ended up staying at my mother’s house until just a year or so ago, when she and I were feeling ruthless during a re-organization campaign. Off they went to my brother’s neighbors, a household with school-age children.

I imagine encyclopedia sets are a real generational marker. Readers under 20 (30?)  might not even know what I am talking about! Who needs encyclopedia at hand when the internet offers everything and more?

Clearly there are pros and cons to both models. The old way was slow and stodgy, if “authoritative.” The new way offers access and immediacy, while leaving accuracy open to debate.

Encyclopaedia Britannica is not gone, it continues as an on-line resource. And I understand World Book still sells “real” encyclopedia. But the days of full sets may be numbered.

What’s your take on how knowledge is organized, vetted and shared? What sources do you consider authoritative?

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10 Comments on “Encyclopaedia Britannica ends print editions – does anyone care?”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    I learned to appreciate ebooks last year when I moved. Print books are nice, a real treasure. But if you collect books, over time they add up in pounds and you hate giving them or throwing them away. Then when you move, you quickly learn they way a ton.
    Speaking of print, I had a thought just yesterday as to why daily news papers are having such a problem.
    When most if not all of the daily state and national news is readily available online, on TV and the radio, the dailies continue to include this “news” in a printed form at the expense of deep local coverage. They pay good money for reports from AP and other sources and this is where I think they are making a mistake.
    They need to concentrate more on local news, what you can’t get from watching TV.

  2. tootightmike says:

    I agree Pete. It’s weird, but the Northcountry This Week has become our best local newspaper.

  3. TomL says:

    As a kid, I used to enjoy browsing through an old Grolier (?) Encyclopedia. It had a definite magic.

    Now I browse Wikipedia. Depending on the subject, it may be a bit less authoritative (although one study sound that the mistake rate was no higher than the Britannica!). Certainly the balance of topic depth is variable – the latest flavor of the month band or TV character will have a longer entry than a major figure of the Italian Renaissance – but in general there is as much there as I want to know.

    And clicking through link to link can be fascinating. After watching on Netflix a movie about a French Partisan cell in World War II Paris (Army of Crime), I looked up the cell on Wikipedia (it was there, with the whole ‘true’ story), then clicked on info on other French partisan groups, then clicked an entry on the French collaborationist police etc. Got a quick lesson on the French Resistance, in what would have taken hours of page flipping on an old-style encyclopedia (which would also likely not have been as complete as Wikipedia).

  4. Bob Falesch says:

    I believe the accuracy issue is a red herring. I can see no reason Britannica online will be any less accurate and it surely will cost less than buying the dead-tree version. Even the free and open-web Wikipedia seems to be about as accurate as print encyclopedias. In terms of usability, web based encyclopedias can’t be beat: off-page linkage to related topics and off-site linkage to research in greater depth are priceless gifts to humanity. That’s not even to mention the ability to make personal notes by copying out of one’s browser window into a text file, or to browser-bookmark an entire group of links to make one’s own custom cross-referenced index that aids in studying a subject over an extended period of time.

    “…other sources that are authoritative?” There are many and they are usually easily found (but one must not take for granted every link one sees) on the web or in print journals. Many journals, for various reasons, have not made it to the web but are often footnoted from right inside Wiki or from secondary web pages. Not all of it is free, but I don’t think free-versus-fee is Lucy’s point here.

    This is from an ol’ fogey who spent the first forty years of life in a world without the WWW and who, in earlier days, enjoyed hours on end leafing through Worldbook and Britannica. I’m not much different nowadays. Getting tangled up in Wiki’s seemingly infinite web of links is better than, um…

  5. Walker says:

    “The old way was slow and stodgy, if “authoritative.” The new way offers access and immediacy, while leaving accuracy open to debate.”

    Wrong. Everything ever published anywhere about anything is subject to error. But stuff published online is corrected when errors are discovered– when paper is wrong, it’s wrong forever.

    Anyone using a single source for anything these days doesn’t really care whether what they’re reading is accurate or not. When accuracy matters to you, you should always check at least two sources. That said, I generally turn Wikipedia first, and often go no further if the article looks reliable, and if I’m not staking staking too much on getting it right.

    One of the best things about Wikipedia is the Talk page on each article– you can often learn a lot about the reliability of a Wikipedia article by looking at the discussion that went on between authors as it was written. And the History page tells you whether it has been vetted by dozens of editors or just a handful. The more eyes, the better.

  6. Lucy Martin says:

    My husband and I were discussing some of this further at dinner. He works in high tech and is a huge open source advocate (no, make that open source evangelist!).

    How can the accuracy of information be measured? If old-style encyclopedias had errors too (and they most certainly did) why are Wikipedia references considered poor form for school papers?

    Of course, I have been outside classroom walls for decades now. But our 20-year-old was/is certainly discouraged from using Wikipedia for his footnotes.

    I had a theory — and it’s just a theory — that academics have a vested interest in protecting the value (real or perceived) of educated expertise. That sounds cynical. I am sure there is a great deal to be said in defense of peer review by educated experts, for example. Absolutely, the pursuit of knowledge and expertise can be noble and pure with no base motives at all.

    But if Wikipedia gets results that are reasonably similar in what we’ll label reliability, Is it pure snobbery to dismiss Wikipedia as unchecked gibberish from the unwashed masses?

    Comments thus far are making a decent case for the merits of Wikipedia. Does anyone care to defend leaving writing with authority to paid experts, the Encyclopaedia Britannica way?

    I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m genuinely curious. As my post says, I loved dead-tree encyclopedias. And I regularly use Wikipedia. Yes, it needs cross-checking. And when you find sources that disagree with Wikipedia’s facts, the verification trail begins! But Wikipedia is often the fastest way to get a summary on the broadest range of subjects, right now.

    I suppose my biggest problem with crowd source info is the way false facts, repeated enough times, or stated as true on Wikipedia, become self-perpetuating. Beware the tyranny of “everyone knows”. (True facts are not created by majority rule.)

    Will some hybrid of the two methods emerge? Or has this already been happening, and its name is …Wikipedia?

  7. Walker says:

    Lucy, I have long shared your cynical theory of academics’ vested interest in defending the value of credentialed expertise. As for the danger of self-perpetuated “facts” within Wikipedia, the same danger haunts the work of academics. And most Wikipedia articles are heavily referenced– if you doubt the facts, check the references. Wikipedia is governed by many, many policies, one of the most basic of which is a ban on “original research:” content should be sourced to secondary texts.

    So yes, Wikipedia should indeed be seen as a hybrid of many academic texts.

    But the most important take-away from all this is that one should never rely absolutely on a single source, no matter what it is.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    The ivory towers are crumbling, and not just in academia. They are also crumbling in government, religion and all forms of publishing and the entertainment media in general.
    The leaders in all fields have been found to be naked.

  9. PNElba says:

    I don’t know about most “academics” but I always tell my students to begin their research with Wikipedia and move on from there.

  10. Larry says:

    No, nobody cares. Encyclopedias discourage real scholarship anyway.

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