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Farewell to Briannica in print

Posted: March 15, 2012 3:58 p.m.
Updated: March 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica has been killed, and our beloved Wikipedia is said to have done the crime.

The 2010 edition of the 129-pound stack of knowledge will be the last printed English edition of the 244-year-old Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. announced Tuesday that it would discontinue the 32-volume print edition.

Who wants to get up off the couch and head to the bookshelf when you have a smart phone in your pocket?

The Britannica will go completely digital, “because that’s where our users are following,” said Jorge Cruz, president of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“They will focus on producing content that can be delivered on computer, laptops, smart phones and tablets,” Editor in Chief Dale Hoiberg said.

Encyclopedia Britannica was first published in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland; it is the oldest English language encyclopedia in existence. The three-volume first edition was a compilation of the Scottish enlightenment.  Before the 14th edition was published, in 24 volumes, the company moved to the United States. And before the 14th edition, one or two editors were in charge of the entire encyclopedia. The 14th edition required approximately 50 associate editors, who developed content in their specialized areas, which became the norm. In 1936, the Encyclopedia Britannica began publishing yearly; a “major revision” in 1985 put a cap on 32 volumes, according to the company’s website.

Since the ’60s, countries all over the world have had access to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was printed in 10 languages, including English. In addition to publishing encyclopedias, the company produces what it calls “e-learning solutions” for schools in the United States and around the world.

Although it’s arguable that it is a better decision for the company to go 100 percent digital, some might wonder why they didn’t focus on a digital version sooner. The company boasts that it put the first encyclopedia online in 1994, and like lots of websites today, many of their web comments are sent through Facebook. Commitment to focusing on digitally dispensing information allows for even more content than what might be available even in 32 volumes and allows for immediate updates and corrections. The books are great as a reference collection, but buying a set is kind of like buying a car. The value of it goes down as soon as you drive it off the lot, not because it isn’t well made, but because in at least one year’s time so much more information has become available on any given subject that the previous year’s edition loses its value.

The change is good -- momentous, in some opinions -- but the company is said to charge $70 a year for access, when Wikipedia is free. Wikipedia was born in 2001 and has become a household staple. Even if you plan on doing in-depth research elsewhere, a lot of people stop at Wikipedia to get a general idea of what they are getting themselves into. Today’s younger generations may remember the family or school collection of encyclopedias and may have used them in institutions of higher learning, but many people just type in what they need to know in their Google or Yahoo search bar and, voila. Even though the Encyclopedia Britannica is guaranteed to be accurate and factual, and Wikipedia is not, it seems the public needs instantaneous information on everything, some of which the Encyclopedia Britannica may not deem worthy of its new medium.

Still, there are a lot of people who prefer print: people who stare at computer screens all day, older citizens and people who just like the way the collection looks on their bookshelves.

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