Britannica, and the Future of Encyclopedias

Some big news in the print/digital world of books, from the New York Times: “After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses” —

“After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print … In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.”

Britannica has for quite some time been relegated to something of a bookshelf furniture piece, with the rise of Wikipedia —

The NYT article makes some interesting notes on the accuracy of Britannica vs. Wikipedia. Besides ease of use — which is a huge factor for most of us — there’s also the cost:

Perhaps most interesting, are the different approaches towards knowledge curation that Britannica and Wikipedia embody, respectively:

“There’s more comprehensive material available on the Web,” Mr. Marchionini said. “The thing that you get from an encyclopedia is one of the best scholars in the world writing a description of that phenomenon or that object, but you’re still getting just one point of view. Anything worth discussing in life is worth getting more than one point of view.”

The companion opinion piece from NYT (“If You Liked Britannica, You’ll Love Wikipedia“) has a respectful but realistic assessment of what Britannica’s relocation from print to online means about the encyclopedia in general —

“There is something about a shelf of encyclopedia volumes – a bit musty, the pages dog-eared and slick – that promises, in A-to-Z glory, all of knowledge in a single package. It is an intensely satisfying completeness. The encyclopedia introduces new topics, distills big ideas, and shows the diversity and breadth of human experience to those who might otherwise have only a narrow slice available to them. … But we live in a complex world, too big for a few hundred people to cover completely, and too fast-moving for print volumes to keep up. … We need encyclopedias. The need has never been greater for accurate, accessible summaries of complex topics. But it makes sense for this essentially innovative format to keep up with available technology.”

For a more technologically-minded perspective, PC World (“The Internet Didn’t Kill Encyclopedia Britannica“) discusses how this change in medium is ultimately a good thing for Britannica —

What Britannica brings to the table is an attempt to provide an objective, transparent source of information, written by people verified to know what they’re talking about, in forms students find easy to use. A Britannica accessible anywhere – especially from tablets – could play just as key a role in education as it did a hundred years ago. And I think (or at least I hope) that people are willing to pay for reliable information.”


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