Encyclopædia Britannica to Drop Print Edition

March 14, 2012

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.

Newton’s Manuscripts Available Online

December 12, 2011

The University of Cambridge, as part of its Cambridge Digital Library project, is making part of its substantial collection of Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific and mathematical manuscripts available online:

Cambridge University Library is pleased to present the first items in its Foundations of Science collection: a selection from the Papers of Sir Isaac Newton. The Library holds the most important and substantial collection of Newton’s scientific and mathematical manuscripts and over the next few months we intend to make most of our Newton papers available on this site.

The first installment of manuscripts includes some of Newton’s college notebooks, some early work on the calculus, early papers on optics, and Newton’s own annotated copy of the first edition of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (often called just the Principia), the work that cemented his international reputation.  The Principia is over 1,000 pages; with the other manuscripts, this segment of the library’s collection comprises about 4,000 pages.  Wired has an image gallery illustrating some sample pages from Sir Isaac’s work.

This is a great example of one of the real benefits of the Internet.  These landmark documents in the history of science can now be seen by millions of people, most of whom would never have had the opportunity in person.

Fifty Years of Catch-22

October 11, 2011

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Joseph Heller’s best, and best known, novel, Catch–22.   It is a novel about an American Army Air Force bomber squadron, operating in Italy during World War II; but it is not the typical sort of war story.  Its central character is Captain Yossarian, a bombardier, who is becoming increasingly convinced that everyone, his own government included, is trying to kill him; nonetheless, he has a strong urge to keep on breathing.  Among the other notable characters are Colonel Cathcart, the unit’s commanding officer; Major Major Major Major, the squadron leader, who can be seen in his office only when he is not there; Nately, a fellow aviator, whose idealism keeps surfacing despite ample evidence against it  (Heller writes, “Nately’s mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution, and his father was a Son of a Bitch.”); and the chaplain, who is asked by Col. Cathcart to lead a prayer before each mission, but to avoid prayers about “valleys and rivers and God”.  Although Catch–22 is a very funny book, its humor is decidedly dark.  Clevinger, one of Yossarian’s friends, who tries to buck up his enthusiasm, is described thus:

Clevinger was dead.  That was the basic flaw in his philosophy.

Yossarian tries to get the medical officer to ground him because he’s crazy, after flying so many missions, and in the process discovers the eponymous “Catch”:

[Yossarian] “Can’t you ground someone who’s crazy?”

[Doc Daneeka] “Oh sure.  I have to.  There’s a rule saying that I have to ground anyone who’s crazy.  …But first he has to ask me.  That’s part of the rule.”

“And then you can ground him?”, Yossarian asked.

“No.  Then I can’t ground him.”

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied.  “Catch–22.  Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch, and that was Catch–22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

As The Economist points out in an article reviewing a Heller biography in this week’s magazine, Catch–22 was Heller’s first novel, and by common consensus his best.  He did continue to write throughout his life, but he never reached quite the same level again.

LATE in life, Joseph Heller was occasionally asked why he had never written anything else as good as “Catch-22”. “Who has?” he’d reply with a self-satisfied grin. Heller was haunted by the long shadow cast by his absurdist first novel, which has sold over 10m copies since it was published in 1961.

The book, in Heller’s original manuscript, was titled “Catch-18”, but the title was changed because Leon Uris’s Mila 18 was published the same year.

Along with many of my friends, I first read Catch–22 when I was in high school, back in the late 1960s.  (I need hardly add that it was not on the list of assigned reading.)   At a time when the Vietnam War was in full swing, the book’s theme of the senselessness and absurdity of war definitely touched a nerve.


Dead Sea Scrolls Online

September 26, 2011

Just after I finished writing the post about Princeton’s new policy of making all scholarly papers available to the public, I came across a story at the BBC News site, which reports that Google has worked together with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to put facsimiles of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls online.   The Scrolls, originally discovered at Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, preserve the oldest existing copies of some parts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as some other texts.  The scrolls that have been made available so far include:

  • The Temple Scroll
  • The Great Isaiah Scroll
  • The War Scroll
  • The Community Rule Scroll
  • The Commentary of Habakkuk Scroll

The online edition contains very high resolution images of the scrolls (1200 megapixel), so that users can inspect the text in detail.  Additional scrolls may be added in the future.  More details are available on the museum site.

This is another aspect of Google’s project to make more of the world’s cultural heritage available online.  I’ve written before about the Google Art project, and about some of the work done on the Google Books project.  It’s good to see some of the positive potential of the Web realized.

The Official Google Blog also has a post on this project.

National Academies Press Offers Free E-Books

June 3, 2011

The National Academies Press [NAP]  has announced that it is making all PDF editions of its books available for free download, effective yesterday, June 2.   The NAP is the publishing organization for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council, and the Institute of Medicine.  The list of available books currently includes  4,000+ titles, and will include most future titles.  Some older books are not covered because a PDF edition was never made; and there are a few specific publications on “Nutritional Requirements of Domestic Animals” that are not included.

The NAP has a FAQ page that covers the licensing and use of the PDF editions. The material is copyrighted, and not in the public domain; there are a few reasonable restrictions, aimed at ensuring that distributed copies are authentic.

This is another welcome step  toward making one of the hoped-for functions of the Internet materialize, by making a wide range of information generally available.

Yale to Put Public-Domain Works Online

June 2, 2011

The “Babbage” blog at The Economist site has a  post reporting  that Yale University will make available online a collection of high-resolution digital images of those works from its extensive collections that are in the public domain.

In an announcement on May 10th, the university says its libraries, museums and archives will provide free universal access to high-resolution digitisations of holdings in the public domain. A teaser in the shape of 250,000 images (in low resolution) from its central catalog of 1.5m is already available.

This is welcome news.  Yale’s libraries contain ~ 10 million books, as well as many other documents.  The University’s natural history museum has a collection of ~12 million specimens.   Yale does not yet know exactly how many of these works are in the public domain, but this step will surely make many more works available to anyone with an Internet connection.

The images themselves, being newly produced, are not in the public domain, but they will be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, which grants permission to copy, modify, and redistribute the work, as long as the original source is credited.  (This blog is licensed under a similar Creative Commons license — see the “Legal Stuff” sidebar.)

As “Babbage” points out, this step, though significant and welcome, is not the first of its kind.  Google has had an on-going project for some time to scan books and make the resulting images available.   Although there has been come controversy over just how Google should handle works that are currently protected by copyright, Google Books already has about one million  public domain titles available.  The Flickr photo sharing site has a large collection of images in the Commons, provided by a number of institutions, including the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Library of Scotland.  Several other universities have made parts of their collections available on the Internet, and Google also has its Art Project, which I wrote about in February, that is making the collections of some of the world’s greatest art museums available online.

The article also mentions that some people have concerns that making this material easily accessible may lead to undesirable results.

Most controversially, without legal recourse museum pieces and specimens from an earlier age risk being travestied in unseemly ways.

That sort of thing — drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, or something even more tasteless — is bound to happen.  But it seems to me that is a very small price to pay to make our common cultural heritage available to a much wider audience.

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