When I was just starting out with living in my own apartment after grad school, one of the things that I packed up from my parents’ house was the 1940s-era printed version of Encyclopedia Britannica. Yesterday, the company announced they were discontinuing the printing of future versions and going strictly online. I had to pause for a moment in its memory, as yet another icon from my childhood slips away.
It was a curious thing for my parents to have. Back in the day, people sold encyclopedias door-to-door, and you bought them on a monthly plan, just like we buy expensive items like cars today. When I was growing up, printed encyclopedias were our go-to reference material. Many students copied pages from them verbatim for their book reports, instilling at an early age a generation of plagiarists. Now we can do our copying with a few mouse clicks, and the teachers have a variety of online tools to check to see where our supposedly original work came from. Such is progress.
Having a 25 year old reference work at home at the time was interesting, making researching history almost amusing (we also had about a dozen of the “yearbooks” which were annual updates to supplement the set). But it instilled an early thirst for knowledge and gave me the motivations to do proper research, something that is the bedrock of my current career.
In my adult years as I moved about from one place to another the 100-plus pounds of books traveled with me, virtually never opened for casual browsing. I guess I just wanted them nearby. The set crossed the country twice as I moved to Los Angeles, then to New York. Finally, I realized that I had to give up this totem of my past and thought that I could sell the set to a library or a collector. Alas, they were worthless, even back in the pre-Wikipedia, pre-Web era, and they went off to be recycled.
Certainly, the first reaction of many of you of a younger age about Britannica’s print demise would be something on the order of “took them long enough” or some such snarky sentiment. After all, why have a printed work of anything that changes, and where the online version can be continuously updated? And where Wikipedia, which is the sixth most visited website, can be accessed for free? Well, indeed. How many casual arguments about statements of fact have ever been settled by someone promising to go to the library to look something up in an encyclopedia, when the same such information can be quickly accessed on one’s phone?
The idea of a scholarly reference work that was prepared by experts in its field started its transformation shortly after the Web became popular in the early 1990s. Actually, the Web had some early competition for knowledge repositories: Microsoft began its own CD-ROM based encyclopedia Encarta in 1993, but it didn’t last very long. And Britannica was ahead of its time when it came to adopting the Web: it has been online since 1995, which pre-dated Wikipedia’s entry to the Web by several years. There is even an iPad version of Britannica for $2 a month.
Nature, the British science magazine, did a study back in 2005 where they chose selected articles from both the online Britannica and Wikipedia and asked a panel of their own experts to identify any errors without telling them which source they were looking at. They found more than a hundred mistakes in both works, with more errors in Wikipedia. Ironically, the original article is behind their paywall and will cost you $35 to read.
If you are really nostalgic, you can be one of 4,000 to own the last edition of the print version of Britannica. It can be had for a mere $1400, and according to press reports only 8,000 copies were ever sold, mostly to libraries. Or if you want to go back into time, I found about 90 different sellers of earlier editions on eBay (most of these sellers won’t accept returns, no surprise). In the meantime, if you want to do your own comparison and fact checking ala Nature, you can access Britannica for the next week free of charge. Normally, access to the online Britannica.com costs $70 the first year. Finding pricing information on their website isn’t easy.
Perhaps it is fitting that we write about this news today, the birth date of Einstein (you can look it up).
Feel free to share your own encyclopedia memories here as well. Adieu, Britannica print.