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Farewell to print: remodelling the Encyclopaedia Britannica

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 19 March 2012


A word of caution: this is not a funeral notice, though it might read as one. That venerable 244-year old knowledge business known as Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print – paper print, at least. That fabulous, 32-volume monster of knowledge and information has moved into the digital world. On March 15, it went 'online', stuffed with various computer 'apps'.

When the publication of a book ceases, a sense of funereal dread (or perhaps relief) descends. While manuscripts may not ever actually burn, claims Mikhail Bulgakov, they can certainly stop being published. The first published copies of this genius of Scottish enterprise appeared in the late 1760s, a humble three-volume. During the Napoleonic war years, it grew more dramatically – the fourth edition (1801-9) comprised 20 volumes.

The more one looks at the beast that is Encyclopaedia Britannica, the more complex it seems. This is largely a result of the structural changes made to the company, much of it affected after its fortunes dipped in the 1990s. Digital versions began to appear in that decade. Currently, only 15 percent of revenue comes from the actual content of the publication. According to the company's president Jorge Cauz, 'The other 85 percent comes from learning and instructional materials we sell to the elementary and high school markets and consumer space' (Fast Company, Mar 15).

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This is technological savvy, the world of innovation filled with the prospects of providing products to the iPad classroom and the increasingly used 'digital whiteboard'. Tools have been developed to assist in the instruction of language skills, science and mathematics. Android is being launched next month, with others to follow, totally 60. This is the land of apps galore, and the company is making sure it does not miss out.

Call it the Wikipedia influence, but the encyclopaedia has begun doing something that would have been thought inconceivable in previous eras. In Cauz's words, the organisation is becoming 'more social'. Those who use the services can in turn 'suggest content, links, bibliographies, and images for entries.' This brings to mind the battles waged against the Encyclopaedia at stages of its history to include various terms, the study by a team of female scholars led by Mary Ritter Beard in the 1940s being one such example. A Study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Relation to its Treament of Women (1942) fell on deaf years, despite the initial enthusiasm shown by the then editor Walter Yust to broaden the focus on entries, notably on women.

Despite the more inclusive changes to receiving content, a cautionary note by Cauz is added. 'Suggestions will be vetted to make sure they're correct.' Besides, the brand is not in competition with Wikipedia. With a snobbish retort to the question that the company might be, Cauz was direct. 'We cannot post an article on every cartoon character, celebrity, or sports figure.' Even with this, the encyclopaedia can still nab 16 percent of Wikipedia's total page views, which are 3 billion a month.

The loss of the print version has already unleased a deluge of nostalgia but not necessarily because of the publication's intellectual weight. The encyclopaedia become a cerebral posture, a sign of comfortably suburban living disturbed only by the aggressive door-to-door salesmen who would disseminate the publication with vigour. (These zealous types were removed from the company's payrolls in 1996.) 'In mid-20th century America', wrote Notre Dame professor of management James S. O'Rourke, IV, 'a set of Britannicas on the shelf was a status symbol: a sign that the family had money, taste, some pretense to intellect, or at least a very strong desire to be seen that way' (CNN, Mar 15).

The fact that such books were never consulted did not matter one jot – what mattered was having them at home. A digital world doesn't actually imply having anything at all – it is a world without the tangible, where the only solid sensation is a click on a button. The fact that 100 million Americans, as a case in point, have no internet connection is hardly encouraging, suggesting that a realm of digital knowledge is a realm too far. And in many cases, most of those 100 million would never have purchased the Britannica set to begin with.

The Britannica could also frustrate – a review in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Sep. 1974) by a member of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Economics, Alan W. Heston, found the Macropaedia's initials of the author at the end of each entry 'most annoying'.

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As much as we might mourn the passing of the print version and all the sensuous delights that accompany the lifting of a bound volume from the shelf, the new digital creature simply acknowledges a reality of the creation preceding it – an intellectual creation that a few used to bump up the ladder of reputation, and even fewer read. The point was that the numbers of people actually consulting the encyclopaedia were never very large. Status came before print. The modern age will see the company exploit the Google generation. And about time too.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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