March 14, 2012

Hail & Farewell: The Encyclopaedia Britannica


One of the greatest ongoing publications in publishing history is coming to an end: The publishers of the fabled Encyclopaedia Brittannica announced late yesterday that, after 244 years, they are ceasing publicationof their print editions.

As Julie Bosman reports in a story for the New York Times, it’s “an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia.” As Jorge Cauz, president of the Chicago-based company tells her, “It’s a rite of passage in this new era. 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.”

But the Britannica’s popularity, and some say even its accuracy, have been challenged by numerous online sources, particularly Wikipedia. Even scholarly experts say it’s time, reports Bosman:

Gary Marchionini, the dean of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the fading of print encyclopedias was “an inexorable trend that will continue.”

“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

Going forward the Britannica “will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools,” says Bosman, and about half a million people subscribe to the digital database. But the last print version will be the current one, leaving only one ongoing print encyclopedia extant: The World Book, which publishes a multi-volume edition yearly … but wouldn’t tell Bosman how much longer that will continue.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.