Encyclopedia Britannica Goes Out Of Print

While the medium has changed from print to bits, the message that an encyclopedia sends is still the same.

A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago-based firm that publishes the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it will no longer publish a print edition of that venerable work, which was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768. Sales had dwindled from a high of 120,000 sets in 1990 to a measly 8,500, and in the meantime the firm had moved on to a variety of educational software products anyway. There is an online edition which will continue, but accessible only by payment of an annual subscription of $70 a year for individuals.

I will miss the print version of Britannica, though I confess it has been many years since I consulted one. I go back a long way with encyclopedias, being one of those peculiar children who preferred to spend recess in third grade curled up in a corner of the classroom with an encyclopedia article on oil refineries rather than going outside to play. Along with thousands of other upwardly-mobile middle-class families, my parents bought a set of the World Book encyclopedia around 1965, complete with yearly updates mailed in a separate supplementary volume for several years. My favorite article was the one on electronics, though I had many others. In a peculiar twist of fate, a few years ago I was approached by an editor of the same World Book to revise their article on electronics, so if you happen to glance into any edition after about 2005 in a public library, you will find your humble scribe’s byline at the end of the electronics entry (that is, unless they’ve revised it again). But as Britannica is now acknowledging, print encyclopedias are a thing of the past, and so in the future, only historians will occasionally rummage around in dusty encyclopedia volumes stowed away in the corners of library storage warehouses.

It’s important to distinguish between the medium and the message here. While the medium has changed from print to bits, the message that an encyclopedia sends is still the same one that Denis Diderot and his Enlightenment colleagues wanted to send with their great Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers in the years 1751 to 1772, which was how long it took for them to complete the twenty-seven-volume work. Their message was that everyone had a right to know the best and the latest about everything, and the encyclopedia they put together was their effort to share knowledge (especially scientific knowledge) with the entire (literate) world.

At the time the French Encyclopédie and the Edinburgh Britannica were published, print was the very latest and best way to propagate knowledge to the largest number of people. When Wikipedia came along, it showed how an online community of interested parties could create a living, continuously revised encyclopedia that in breadth of coverage far surpassed anything that could be printed. As far as accuracy and quality of authors go, Wikipedia is occasionally spotty, as compared to the carefully selected writers of articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica. But since I have begun using Wikipedia (and I probably consult it at least an average of once a day), I have found it to be an invaluable reference with regard to scientific matters, and pretty good on most other types of subjects.

Engineers have played a vital role in this transition from print to electronic media, and it is no coincidence that modern scientific engineering as a profession dates back to around the same time that the first encyclopedias were published. Engineering depends on the free exchange of scientific principles rather than the carefully-guarded and often poorly understood trade secrets that were handed down from generation to generation during the Middle Ages. “Looking it up” is as natural an action for an engineer as breathing, and without electronic access to technical information from both public and proprietary sources, modern engineering would be much more difficult. Any engineer over 40 or so remembers the piles and piles of print catalogs and data manuals published by manufacturers and distributors, most of which have also turned into websites by now.

I try to think of a downside to all this, and the only ones I can come up with are two: (1) encumbrances to historical research and (2) the unlikely global disaster scenario. Shortly before we left Massachusetts in 1999, I went to a tag sale on the common in Belchertown and found somebody selling a complete set of the Columbia Encyclopedia for some ridiculously low price like fifteen dollars. I bought it and it has an honored place in my bookshelves, though it is years since I looked at it either. But if I ever want to know what the general perception of a certain subject was around 1980, I can look in that encyclopedia and find out. You can’t do that online, not easily, anyway, although with projects such as Google’s attempt to put every non-copyrighted page of print online, that problem may soon go away too.

That leaves the global-disaster scenario, one in which all Internet service and servers are so disrupted that we basically all go back to pre-Internet days for an indefinite period of time. No Wikipedia, no Facebook, and no TV or phone service either, probably, if things got that bad. In such a dire situation, I suspect we would all have more urgent things on our minds than looking up encyclopedia articles, such as where our next meal is coming from. But the chances of something this awful happening are pretty small, I hope.

So as we bid the print version of Britannica farewell, I hope there is some third-grader out there who can look up oil refineries, or the biology of the eggplant, or some equally obscure subject online during recess. But I don’t know if they let you do that these days.

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