The World Library Book Beat Blog
Volume 2, Number 3
Wednessday, April 18, 2012
by John Guagliardo
Founder, World Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica Goes Paperless After 244 Years
A few days ago when I read in the Chicago Tribune, Encyclopaedia Britannica to end print Edition after 244 years. it took me back a bit. I know that online references are what everyone is using now, and I know that no one uses paper references anymore, but to see it in the Tribune really hit me. I often wonder how long it will be until all print and paperbound publications will no longer be used.
Back in 1996 when we saw the possibilities of online publications and reference materials we got really excited about the future. We never considered that we would see the transition so fast. I think the general consensus was that it’ll happen eventually, but not in our lifetime.
To be honest, I feel mixed emotions about the new paperless wave. There is definitely a sense of nostalgia for me, even to the point of igniting the imagination, when holding a printed bound book.
In the Huffington Post, Myron Taxman, one of the world's last door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen, who also mourns the end of the print Edition, sums it up, "I understand that people have nostalgic feelings for the printed books. But we can do so many things with online and mobile products that we couldn't do with print, and that's where our business is now.”
"We just decided that it was better for the brand to focus on what really the future is all about," said Jorge Cauz, Encyclopaedia Britannica's president. "Our database is very large now, much larger than can fit in the printed edition. Our print set version is an abridged version of what we have online."
Founded in 1768 in Scotland, Britannica has been headquartered in Chicago since 1935, when it was under the ownership of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Marketed door-to-door for generations, it was a robust business that employed thousands of people, and sold more than 100,000 sets as recently as 1990, its best year ever, when it generated $650 million in revenue.
Within a few years, sales began to tumble, as consumers opted for home computers bundled with CD-ROM encyclopedias over the $1,500 leather-bound sets. More recently, the rise of Wikipedia and high-speed Internet has shifted reference libraries online, with only a few thousand copies of the Britannica printed version trickling out each year to libraries, schools and a handful of neo-Luddite homeowners, according to Cauz.
As we look to the future and see the limitless possibilities the Internet may offer, it is both awe-inspiring and frightening. I often hear folks voice their apprehensions of what may be if we embrace “the newest” and “the latest” too quickly. To me publications like the Encyclopaedia Britannica are more than just a set of reference books. They are substantive books, both in content and in heft, that I held in my hands and relied on for decades. When I think of the volumes and volumes of them I have thumbed through I am reminded of the most precious moments of my youth, where all the knowledge of the universe, seemingly infinite, was bound, and beckoned me to explore. The hours of page-turning discoveries I had when I was in grade school, I wouldn’t wish any student to miss out on.
Although it is not the same, we do have some digital facsimile of these older classic leather bound editions available for download, and can be easily imported to your smart device or reader. I recommend using Apple's iPad to read them on. The iBooks app works really well with our PDF version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, (Download Encyclopedia Britannica).