The digital revolution has claimed another victim. Encyclopaedia Britannia will no longer be printed. The world's most famous (if you exclude Wikipedia) encyclopaedia will live on in digital form.
The company behind Britannica pointed out in a news release that it had pioneered digital knowledge, creating its first digital version in 1981 and its first internet encyclopaedia in 1994. Encyclopedia (note US spelling) Britannica company president Jorge Cauze explained: “We’re digital, we’re mobile, and we’re social...We’re a very different company from 20 or 30 years ago." In other words, Britannica's print demise is not the final volume.
Many will name Wikipedia as the cause of death of Britannica's print edition. Yet Wired's Tim Carmody names another suspect: Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia. He points out that millions bought the Microsoft reference work on CD and later DVD with their first computers. The tech giant delibarately priced the product cheaply to encourage families to buy home PCs in the 1990s. (I remember buying a couple of editions for £20 or less.) Expedia buyers were very unlikely to splash out £1,000 or more on Britannica.
This strikes me as a compelling argument. I'm not so convinced by Carmody's argument that Britannica was largely a vanity purchase. As a book-loving 18 year old, I was very envious when my older sister bought a Britannica set, along with a number of Britannica yearbooks. Britannica seemed like a wise and kind investment by parents keen to help their children learn about their world.
Wrting this post has reminded me that I was once the proud owner of a set of Children's Britannica. I loved browsing those volumes - for study and for interest. Years later, I bought occasional editions of Pears' Cyclopaedia, but only really got back into the idea of an encyclopaedia when Encarta came along.
Ironically, Encarta died three years before Britannica's print edition.
Britannica's blog rightly said that change is OK. After all, organisations need to adapt if they're to survive. I'm not the right person to say if ditching print is the right move for Encyclopaedia Britannica. (But I'm not impressed by the blog's use of that awful cliched way of emphasising a point: "Every. Single. Day." That's not how you prove authority in a digital age.)
I can't wait to hear whether Britannia has boosted interest in its iPad and iPhone editions since its announcement. This month's bold move must have been the biggest interest in Britannia for years. It's time to reap the rewards.