"You mean it wasn't out of print already?" That's our first reaction to the news about the print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica being discontinued. Our second is, "What's for dinner?" Because the emotional impact of the announcement is fleeting -- how did this publishing dinosaur manage to limp so far into the 21st century?
The reasons for its demise, after 244 years, are so obvious they're barely worth repeating. So here's the executive summary in two words, allowing you to skip the next couple of paragraphs. Wikipedia. Paper.
Wikipedia has totally surpassed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because a crowdsourced reference work is so much more vital than a scholarly one. One is constantly expanding and updated, and crackling with collaborative energy. The other is updated once a year, with sole-authored articles by "experts in their field". But funnily enough, a report in Nature magazine reckons the error count in both sources are roughly the same.
It also comes down to the difference between physical media and digital media. Who's got the room on their shelves for 32 volumes of printed information, information that's redundant mere moments after it has rolled off the press? Think about all the paper that's been used to publish them, and the escalating cost of doing so. Those costs were invariably passed down to the end-user.
So goodbye to the print edition, but it won't be missed. We'll allow ourselves a brief moment of nostalgia and then look onwards to the future.
Growing up in the 1980s, we had a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in our house. The family patriarch had been convinced by a door-to-door salesman to spend £1,500 on the set -- not an insignificant sum of money, especially for a bloke who owned a kebab shop in Crouch End, London. For that kind of cash, he could've bought a top of the range Ford Cortina.
In the pre-internet era, however, it was a fantastic investment. It was a window into the world, encompassing a vast spectrum of art, history, science and politics. Homework simply became a matter of flipping through the pages and cribbing from the text. In a culture that wasn't yet wired, accelerated, and constantly connected, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was entirely necessary.
Purely from a marketing perspective, it's a pity that the print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica couldn't hold on for another six years and celebrate its 250th Anniversary. But on second thoughts, considering the spectacular number of trees that would require to chop down and pulp, that's clearly an insane idea.
A far, far better way for Encyclopaedia Britannica to commemorate the occasion is to release an e-book edition of their work. The Kindle is a proven platform, with millions of users. If they were to release a well-designed reference work that's easy to navigate, competitively priced and has free updates, it could well become the killer app of the e-reader market.
We're still waiting for that announcement to happen, unfortunately. It's actually a spectacular blunder on the publisher's part, not to balance the "bad news" of their print edition's demise with the "good news" that they're working on a Kindle edition. Instead, there's a vague restructuring into gated web portals for academic institutions, and their gradual slide into cultural irrelevance continues apace.
In the meantime, before we get too giddy dancing on the grave of one reference work, let's consider the delicate condition of another. Wikipedia remains our go-to destination for information on the Elvis Presley Phenomenon or lists of fictional US presidents, but in order to remain free of advertising and free to access it depends entirely on public donations. Make with the clicky and open your wallets, because those servers aren't going to pay for themselves.