Thursday, March 15, 2012

No more printed Encyclopedia Britannicas as company stops the presses

Stop the presses: after 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be available in print form.

It's not unexpected. Physical resource material is going the way of the dodo bird. In 2009, Microsoft dropped Encarta, its DVD-based encyclopedia, and in August of 2010, the Oxford English Dictionary said that it was possible there would be no printed version the next time the OED is released.

It's yet another testament to the digital age, as well as the popularity of the website Wikipedia, which was a major factor behind the demise of Encarta. Encyclopaedia Britannica will instead focus on its online version and educational curriculum for schools.

The last print version ever, therefore, will be the 32-volume 2010 edition. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the still remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are purchased. The price tag isn't cheap: $1,395.

The days of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen are long gone, but we can still remember them coming around and selling not just one, but two sets of encyclopedias to our parents. One was the student edition, and the second was the full edition. We would pore over the books, page by page, and not webpage by webpage.

Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., which is based in Chicago, Ill., admitted digital is better than the printed word.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era. Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

It doesn't mean the Encyclopaedia Britannica is dead. While Wikipedia is powerful, its "anyone can edit it" functionality also means that the information in the articles aren't verified, unlike Britannica.

Encyclopedia Britannica has long touted the accuracy of its material, but one widely publicized 2005 study, published by Nature, brought that accuracy advantage into question. Nature's study compared 42 articles on identical subjects. According to Nature, Wikipedia made an average of four errors per article, while Britannica made three.

That is an advantage, but not as significant as Britannica would like to see, obviously. In rebuttal, Britannica responded by labeling Nature's study as error-laden and "completely without merit."

Nature itself responded Britannica's objections with a formal response, an editorial, and a point-by-point rebuttal of Britannica's objections.

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