Britannica, and the Future of Encyclopedias

Some big news in the print/digital world of books, from the New York Times: “After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses” —

“After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print … In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.”

Britannica has for quite some time been relegated to something of a bookshelf furniture piece, with the rise of Wikipedia —

“Since it was started 11 years ago, Wikipedia has moved a long way toward replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds. The site is now written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, and it has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.Wikipedia also regularly meets the 21st-century mandate of providing instantly updated material.”

The NYT article makes some interesting notes on the accuracy of Britannica vs. Wikipedia. Besides ease of use — which is a huge factor for most of us — there’s also the cost:

“The Britannica, the oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, has become a luxury item with a $1,395 price tag. It is frequently bought by embassies, libraries and research institutions, and by well-educated, upscale consumers who felt an attachment to the set of bound volumes. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought.”

Perhaps most interesting, are the different approaches towards knowledge curation that Britannica and Wikipedia embody, respectively:

“There’s more comprehensive material available on the Web,” Mr. Marchionini said. “The thing that you get from an encyclopedia is one of the best scholars in the world writing a description of that phenomenon or that object, but you’re still getting just one point of view. Anything worth discussing in life is worth getting more than one point of view.”

The companion opinion piece from NYT (“If You Liked Britannica, You’ll Love Wikipedia”) has a respectful but realistic assessment of what Britannica’s relocation from print to online means about the encyclopedia in general —

“There is something about a shelf of encyclopedia volumes — a bit musty, the pages dog-eared and slick — that promises, in A-to-Z glory, all of knowledge in a single package. It is an intensely satisfying completeness. The encyclopedia introduces new topics, distills big ideas, and shows the diversity and breadth of human experience to those who might otherwise have only a narrow slice available to them. … But we live in a complex world, too big for a few hundred people to cover completely, and too fast-moving for print volumes to keep up. … We need encyclopedias. The need has never been greater for accurate, accessible summaries of complex topics. But it makes sense for this essentially innovative format to keep up with available technology.”

For a more technologically-minded perspective, PC World (“The Internet Didn’t Kill Encyclopedia Britannica”) discusses how this change in medium is ultimately a good thing for Britannica —

“The online reference and research experience is just better. It’s quicker and easier to get the information you need. You can get your information in a wider range of places, and repurpose or compare it much quicker. …

What Britannica brings to the table is an attempt to provide an objective, transparent source of information, written by people verified to know what they’re talking about, in forms students find easy to use. A Britannica accessible anywhere — especially from tablets — could play just as key a role in education as it did a hundred years ago. And I think (or at least I hope) that people are willing to pay for reliable information.”

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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