Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The End of the Print Britannica

The company that publishes the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced on Tuesday that it will no longer offer a print edition of its venerable flagship work, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Britannica is bowing to reality. After 244 years of publishing a print edition, the encyclopedia is becoming a digital-only publication. The reason is simple: "'The sales of printed encyclopedias have been neglible for several years ... We knew this was going to come,'" says Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. President Jorge Cauz. I have mixed feelings about this announcement.

My father was a Britannica author (he wrote the articles on purpura and other hematological disorders), and this was a source of enormous family pride--it signified that he was the world's expert. The Britannica could have chosen any specialist to write these articles, but they chose my dad. The print edition, in its specially-designed wooden bookcase, occupied a prominent place in our house, and it played a prominent role in my and my sister's education. It was the first place we turned when we had to write reports or get some background information.

I often use Wikipedia for background information but I prefer to verify its accuracy before relying on it. I know that Wikipedia offers some of the same information as the Britannica, but I do worry about who is vetting it. As the Globe points out, "Britannica has thousands of expert contributors from around the world, including Nobel laureates and world leaders ... It also has a staff of more than 100 editors." Wikipedia can't compete with that. On the other hand, as a librarian, I think that reference sources work particularly well in a digital format because they can be updated continuously to avoid obsolescence, and also because they can be accessed on mobile devices, which is a tremendous convenience. In addition, reference works tend not to be read from beginning to end, and do not suffer when accessed in random order.

I hope the digital Britannica will thrive!

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