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After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica is a ghost in the machine

After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica is a ghost in the machine

After 244 continuous years in print, the publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (or EB) have decided they will no longer publish an actual paper edition, choosing instead to exist solely in cyberspace. Much will be gained in terms of ongoing, constant updating, fact checking and enhanced search capabilities – but something else will be lost. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Like every other reader, from childhood onward, the writer spent much time in libraries – school libraries, community libraries, and even – for special searches – the world-famous Library of Congress or the National Library of Medicine on rare occasions.

There was something magical about sitting in a quiet room surrounded by books on every conceivable topic, and reference librarians on tap to help one find information from among all those thousands of books. But one guilty pleasure – in the library and in any home wherever there was a set – was to settle down in front of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in all its definitive and weighty glory.

Generations of teachers have remonstrated students not to rely upon the EB for their research for assignments, but the temptation was always there to start with that old reliable EB for the big picture, the way to write about a complicated topic – and maybe a hint or two of other sources to go read as well. But it was a guilty pleasure because once one had cracked open a volume to read about, say, the use of vaulted versus corbelled arches in medieval cathedrals, the preceding and succeeding pages were a constant temptation luring the reader to a contemplation of the range of knowledge in the universe. And it also allowed students to procrastinate a little further before getting down to the prosaic business of writing that term paper.

Every reader of the EB had their favourite places to return to, even if they had nothing whatsoever to do with a pending assignment. This writer revisited those long, detailed articles on European history – the ones with all the historical maps showing the ebb and flow of empires – as well as essays on ancient languages and literature, and a few side excursions onto palaeontology, genetics, evolutionary theory and astronomy. Then there was that atlas in the final volume and the yearbooks that brought coverage of sports statistics and space discoveries up-to-date. And here may lie the core of the EB’s eventual undoing as a print project that cost $1,400 a set – the Internet is just so much easier as a way to keep the EB’s magisterial contents accurate and up-to-the-minute.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768 and its conceptualisation and production was one of the signal achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment. In the beginning, between 1768 and 1771, it was issued in just three volumes, but by its fourth edition, it had grown to its now-familiar 20 volumes. Given its growing stature as an authoritative guide to knowledge, by the eleventh edition at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the gold standard for scholarship and literary style.

As it made growing inroads into the American market, more recondite articles on more arcane British subjects were made shorter for American readers. Then, in 1933, its editors adopted the “continuous revision” approach by which the whole thing was continually reprinted and updated on a fixed schedule.

But now the end has really come. The final print edition was actually issued in 2010 in the 32-volume, tripartite format: the Micropaedia of short articles, a 17-volume Macropaedia of longer pieces and a Propaedia volume designed to give all knowledge a structured outline.

For the past 70 years or so, the EB has encompassed around 40-million words on about half a million separate topics. One special quirk – besides those Latin neologisms for its three parts – Micropaedia, Macropaedia and Propedia – is that it continues to be written in British spelling, despite having been based in the US for 110 years. If it could talk, it would still undoubtedly use RP as its accent.

Back at the beginning, the EB had been designed as an English language response to Diderot and d’Alembert’s French Encyclopédie. And over its 244 years, EB’s owners have changed many times, ranging from Scottish publisher A & C Black, Horace Everett Hooper, Sears Roebuck and William Benton, until its present owner, Jacqui Safra, a Swiss billionaire actor. In an effort to remain competitive – and relevant to new users – the EB has stressed its authoritativeness and comprehensiveness, even as it reduced its price and production costs by shifting onto CD-ROM, DVD and Internet platforms.

Just before the Internet came along, EB sales had topped out in 1990 with around 120,000 sets sold in America. In contrast, its last print edition only sold about 8,000 copies and the company says it still has 4,000 copies in stock. The EB management says print encyclopaedias represented under 1% of its total revenue, with some 85% coming from other educational products and around 15% from the $70 annual subscription to its premium website that some half a million users now purchase.

Ending the print version “has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google,” said Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. president Jorge Cauz. Rather, “this has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells it digital products to a large number of people. A printed encyclopaedia is obsolete the minute that you print it, whereas our online edition is updated continuously… The sales of printed encyclopaedias have been negligible for several years. We knew this was going to come.”

Despite the obvious appeal of this shift, The New York Times noted in its “obituary” that the end of the flagship set that had been sold by a legion of salesmen and women will inevitably be mourned by those who saw “having the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith [television] in the den, a possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class,” back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. But Cauz insists that, yes, “some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The website is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

But observers also note that the shift to electronic and Internet-based products has also had its pitfalls. Microsoft’s highly touted “Encarta” never really carved out a solid niche nor built up enough of a base of users and fans to prevent it from being phased out some three years ago. Meanwhile, a whole new generation of instructors in high schools and universities around the world has been forced to write in their class syllabi (as this writer also did during his time as a university lecturer): “For this course, no citations from Wikipedia, Encarta or similar electronic encyclopaedias will be accepted” for term papers – all in a desperate effort to encourage students to track down some real primary sources.

Inevitably, too, a veil of nostalgia is coming over the EB’s abandonment of paper. Writing his encomium in “The New Republic” the other day, historian David Bell said “with the disappearance of paper encyclopaedias, a part of the Western intellectual tradition is disappearing as well. I am not speaking of the idea of impartial, objective, and meticulously accurate reference…”

“But the great paper encyclopaedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order…” Diderot and d’Alembert’s first French encyclopaedia, and then the writers of the EB “also had strongly polemical intentions… to order knowledge [and]… to reorient readers away from earlier, avowedly religious systems. It aimed, quite explicitly, to advance toleration, combat religious fanaticism, and promote a spirit of pragmatic, rational inquiry and experimentation. The ‘Map of Knowledge’ deliberately relegated ‘Religion’ to a tiny outcropping, alongside ‘Superstition’, ‘Divination’, and ‘Black Magic’. ”

Bell concludes that this ambition to encompass all knowledge was also an assertion that human beings had at least some control over the tsunami of facts and ideas being produced. “The existence of the books gave us the sense that some points of dry land remained amidst the floods, some fragments shored against our ruins. The disappearance of these grand printed volumes, while inevitable, is yet another depressing sign of just how much we are now adrift in the limitless oceans of information.”

And so, amidst all the extraordinary possibilities of instant updating and the near-instantaneous searching and identifying a half a million references to T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, with all this unstructured information, we now run the risk that we will be reading all those voices till we drown. Requiem en pacem, printed version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sic transit gloria mundi. DM

Read more:

  • Encyclopedia Britannica – the website of the all-electronic Encyclopedia Britannica (but you will have to pay to use it).
  • What We’ve Lost With the Demise of Print Encyclopedias in the New Republic.
  • A look at Encyclopaedia Britannica as it exits print – an appreciation in the San Jose Mercury News – the newspaper of Silicon Valley.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica puts an end to print publishing in (the all electronic) Christian Science Monitor.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica: After 244 years in print, only digital copies sold in the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Goodbye, Encarta. A cautionary tale for newspapers? In the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica ends print edition; goes digital in the Washington Post.

Photo: A screenshot of Encyclopedia Britannica online.


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