It seems we are seeing the passing of another era. According to articles at the BBC News and the New York Times, the firm that publishes the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica has announced that it will not produce any more printed editions.
… Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.
The Britannica is the oldest continuously published encyclopaedia in English, having been available in print for 244 years. But sales have dropped off dramatically in recent years. In 1990, there were 120,000 sets of the Britannica sold in the United States; so far, only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, at $1,395 per set. The publisher, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., gets less than 1% of its current revenue from printed editions; about 15% of revenue comes from subscriptions to the online version of the encyclopaedia, and about 85% from the sale of educational curriculum products.
The availability of so many reference sources on the Internet has damaged the sales of all sorts of printed references. I’ve written here before about the development of Wikipedia as a substitute for printed encyclopaedias, and about the mostly groundless fear that it somehow will contain wrong or corrupted information. Online sources have several advantages: speed of updates and inclusion of new information, and ease of searching are obvious. For those of us who live in rich democracies, these are undoubtedly convenient. But, as I’ve said before, I think perhaps the greatest benefit, in the long term, will come from making a large body of knowledge available to the millions of people elsewhere in the world who would have no practical opportunity ever to see a printed copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Still, I feel a certain sadness at this news. I can remember many hours that I spent, as a child, curled up with a volume of the Britannica, reading articles that struck my fancy. It was great to know that there was so much to discover, just in that one set of elegantly-bound volumes.