Farewell, Britannica!

I had planned on posting a normal review today, but decided instead to comment on Encyclopedia Britannica’s decision to discontinue print editions of their encyclopedias.  Most of the articles that I’ve read so far are critical of the change, but I don’t think that it’s a bad thing.

The problem with print encyclopedias is that they are bulky, expensive, and are out-of-date from the moment that they are published.  The online editions of Britannica are written with the same level of expertise and are vetted by scholars, but errors can be corrected as soon as they are discovered and the encyclopedias can be updated to reflect current events.  You can’t pick up a print copy of Britannica and read about the Fukushima meltdown, but such information is provided through the digital version.

From a library reference perspective, it’s just as easy (if not easier) to look something up from an online version of Britannica, and you are providing better quality information.  Focusing on the digital edition also solves the problem of shelving space from having to buy new physical reference books each year as the new editions are published.  It seems a waste to have to weed out old encyclopedias to make room for the new when one can simply provide access to an updated digital version.

What are your thoughts?  Is a print encyclopedia still relevant?

Comments make me happy! Please feel free to leave a reply.

21 comments

  1. I totally agree. I admit, I was a bit nostalgic to hear that it’s been published every year since 1768 — that’s quite a tradition! But I agree that having it online just makes so much more sense.

    1. I wonder if anyone (aside from the Library of Congress) has ever tried to get every year’s edition. It seems like it would make a neat comparison to see how the modern ones differ from the early editions.

  2. I don’t think a print version of the EB is relevant anymore, and yet I wholeheartedly lament its loss with all of those critical of the change. I haven’t used an encyclopedia in print form since high school, if memory serves, and the advent of the internet as we know it has turned it into the portal that people use when seeking out specific knowledge. So making the EB an electronic only resource makes sense. I wonder though how often it is and will be used when something like Wiki exists. Now we all know that Wiki is at best marginal in reliability, but isn’t that where most people turn first? Why? Because it is convenient. It is easy. We all know it.

    Getting back on topic, I am always sad when I see print media go away. I realize I am one of the dinosaurs in that respect, but I cannot rid myself of the conviction that the disappearance of print media, particularly books, will lessen us as a society.

    1. I think the difference is that Britannica will always be a well-respected scholarly source, whereas the fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia is concurrently its greatest strength and weakness.

      I’m kind of in the middle on the whole print vs. digital debate. I think that the two ought to coexist and reinforce each other, but with a general encyclopedia, digital just seems to make more sense.

      1. I agree, EB is much more scholarly and more reliable, but I wonder if people are using it.

        I don’t despise e-books the way I initially did. I can see the attraction and see the benefit. But I also feel that we are losing something very special, or will be at any rate, if the trend towards print reading material goes downward over time.

        1. My rule of thumb was always to use a real encyclopedia if I had to cite anything, but to use Wikipedia for general reading or to get an idea about a topic before doing further research.

          I love print books, and I don’t think I could stand to lose them in their entirety, but I do like the convenience of having e-books as well.

  3. I agree with everyone here. There’s just one aspect of the print version that will be missed by many, and it’s the same thing I miss about brick and mortar music stores and bookstores. It’s the browse factor. Once you’ve found what you’ve specifically searched for, the EB print version would get you looking at nearby entries and learning about things you would not have sought directly. There was also the fun of opening up to a random page to read what was there. You can do that to a degree online, but I don’t think it’s quite the same.

      1. I find that I can browse Wikipedia rather well (and I spend way too much time doing so), but I have a hard time shopping for books online. It’s fine if I want something specific at a decent price, but it just doesn’t compare to being able to flip through entire shelves of books.

  4. I’m not sure at all. It just seesm such a traditional thing, the Encyclopedia Brutannica, I only think of it in print but it doesn make sense L guess.

    1. I think encyclopedias were a status symbol for a long time. Because they weren’t cheap, it meant something for someone to own one. I’m nostalgic, but the switch to a digital version seems like a logical decision.

  5. Logically, I know you are right, but I have fond memories of my childhood Britannica set. I always wanted to learn about everything in them but never got much further than aardvark! I think the physical sets are great for when you are just browsing rather than having something specific to look up.

    1. I never had a set of encyclopedias when I was a child, so most of my memories of them come from going through the volumes at the school library while working on my first research papers. I think that browsing is one of the things that’s getting lost in the transition to digital media.

  6. This makes me sad. As a child I would get lost in volumes of the EB and, even as we move into our technological future, I think it is important for children to have that browsing experience. We try and keep a recent copy of the World Book in our school library just so that students can have that experience.

    1. I’ve never really spent time browsing a physical encyclopedia aside from using it for classes, but I do enjoy browsing Wikipedia and just clicking on links to different articles. I’ve amassed an enormous degree of useless information that way. 😛

  7. I ahve no trouble with the death of print Encyclopedias. Nobody much uses them anymore. It’s a collosal waste of paper and resources. We can wax nostalgic about them (and I will miss them, too) but I think we all know that, logically, it was the right decision and probably overdue.

    1. Exactly. Even if the decision were made to keep them around in some form, the yearly model definitely had to go. There’s no point in wasting the money/paper to print a new encyclopedia every year. Maybe every 5-10 years for the collectors, but most people do their research online when using them for projects anyway.

  8. I have to say I think this is sad simply because I love books as physical objects. They’re symbols of the sum of human knowledge – and encyclopedias are really the pinnacle of that, or at least were in their day. But it’s a decision with such a clear logic of utility behind it that it’s difficult to argue with… makes you wonder what form knowledge will take once the Internet becomes out of date.