The Sun Sets on the Encyclopedia Britannica Print Edition

The print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is no more, a fact that's already sending bibliophiles to mourn the death of print (even more) and digital types to cheer on Wikipedia (even more). As the Chicago Tribune put it, this is "a cultural benchmark and, certainly, a moment in history." True, but it's not a sad one.

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The print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is no more, a fact that's already sending bibliophiles to mourn the death of print (even more) and digital types to cheer on Wikipedia (even more). As the Chicago Tribune put it, this is "a cultural benchmark and, certainly, a moment in history." True, but it's not a sad one. With the death of the print edition, many people will lose their jobs, book collectors will scoop up the final editions and the rest of the encyclopedia industry will focus even more assertively on digital.

The Britannica is going all online, but unlike that other online encyclopedia, it will not be free. The Tribune's Robert Channick spoke to Jorge Cauz, Encyclopedia Britannica's 50-year-old president, who explained that Britannica's print edition made up only 15 percent of the company's revenue and was already "an abridged version of what [they] have online." Only 8,000 of the last 12,000 sets have been sold, and Cauz expects the remainders to be worth something someday. "This is probably going to be a collector's item," he said. "This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest print runs." If you'd simply like access to the knowledge, Cauz and the rest of the Britannica invite you to pay $70 a year for full online access or $1.99-a-month for the iPad edition. To usher out the print era, however, they're offering a free one-week trial.

Charging for access to an encyclopedia must sound preposterous to the Wikipedia generation. While Cauz touted the Britannica's fact-checking operation and outside contributors who've helped build the Britannica, it's still a pay-to-play proposition. "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge," Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales offered this contrarian proposition in 2004 which was very early in the history of the encyclopedia he helped build. Wales hasn't commented yet on the end of the Britannica edition; he's been busy responding to suggestions from his Twitter followers about an open-source replacement for Google Docs. Free and open is Wikipdia's style, and frankly, something to which most people under 40 have become accustomed. So, in many ways, the Britannica books' demise has been a long time coming.

To those with close ties to the print encyclopedia industry, Britannica's very active attempt to offer for-pay counter-programming to Wikipedia is an intimidating one. Jim Romenesko spoke to Charlie Madigan one of the encyclopedia's former senior editors who seemed concerned about what his former company going all-digital would mean for the future of facts: "I learned an important lesson about the kind of people drawn to web operations," he wrote Romenesko. "Many of them had no connection to the kinds of ethics and training that were so essential in journalism." So we're to believe that online encyclopedia writers and editors won't be as good at their jobs as the print ones? Slightly offensive to digital natives, but do go on: "I am sad about this decision," Madigan concluded. "I had the whole shebang Britannica encyclopedia and delighted in just sitting down and picking it up at random and reading. It didn’t have as many bared breasts as National Geographic, but there was a good deal of depth to anything that book presented."

Our somewhat skeptical tone aside, we understand that some people are sad about the demise of Britannica's print edition. If you fetishize leather bound books, the weight of a dead tree in your hands and smell of ink on your fingers,  we encourage you to buy one of the final 4,000 sets for $1,395 or whatever they're going for on eBay. It's sad to see eras end sometimes, and spending money might help feel better. (We like to shop when we're sad, too!) It's not like the money's going to a bad cause. The Britannica has long been a faithful promoter of knowledge. They just happen to have some serious competition that's offering a similar service for free.

Frame image by Maugli via Shutterstock

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.