No More Dead-Tree Encyclopaedia Britannica: Sad, But Not That Sad

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Encyclopaedia Britannica Assistant Editor William Clarke in 1947

It’s the end of an era that began in 1768. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has announced that it’s terminating publication of its 32-volume print edition. It’ll continue online. But for those of us who grew up on those thick hardcovers, it’s not going to be the same.

It would be logical –but mistaken — to assume that Wikipedia did in its venerable competitor. Britannica never seized the opportunity of the electronic age. When Microsoft proposed collaborating on the CD-ROM that became Encarta, the Britannica people turned down the opportunity. Sales of the paper version fell by more than half between 1990 and 1994, years before Wikipedia showed up.

Some may also bemoan this development as the triumph of an often amateurish, sometimes inaccurate, occasionally incomprehensible home-made encyclopedia over a reliable research work crafted by experts. I’m not so sure about that theory. My father reviewed the whole darn Encyclopaedia thirty-six years ago, and found it…often amateurish. Especially compared to the peerless 11th edition published in 1910-1911.

Growing up, we had the copy of the Britannica that my dad reviewed in the house. But few families could afford to own their own set. (Those that could typically bought it on an installment plan, as if it were a new car.) Thanks to my iPhone, I can carry Wikipedia in its entirety in my pocket, and consult it whenever a question pops into my head. I don’t think there’s a rational reason to prefer a printed encyclopedia to a digital one.

Wikipedia is far from perfect, but so is the Britannica, and if I were forced to choose between them, I’d opt for the more exhaustive, ambitious, accessible, continuously-updated, no-cost Wikipedia in a heartbeat. In fact, I already have: I couldn’t tell you the last time I turned to the Britannica in its classic form.

I wouldn’t, however, advocate for the end of the Britannica, which will remain available on the Web, in iPhone and iPad editions and on DVD. I hope it sticks around forever in some form. And today’s news isn’t the august reference work’s low point. This is a product that’s seen a lot of history: It went bankrupt in 1826, and has gone through ownership changes and financial ups and downs ever since. You don’t have to be a demented Pollyanna to see the end of its print incarnation as the start of yet another new chapter rather than the beginning of the end.

Incidentally, I didn’t know off the top of my head that the Britannica’s publisher declared bankruptcy back in 1826. I feel guilty about it, but I learned that and other factoids in this post from the fine entry on the Encyclopaedia Britannica in — wait for it — Wikipedia.

[MORE: My colleague Matt Peckham, a Britannica fan, has more thoughts on all this.]