Bye bye, Britannica

The end of an era arrived last week as the much-revered Encyclopaedia Britannica ceased print publication. Hooray, says ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It is the end of the beginning of the end. Encyclopaedia Britannica, arguably the most famous compendium of all human knowledge, will no longer be produced in printed form.

The obituary of the printed book, delivered last Wednesday, was upbeat: “After 244 years in print, the 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica will be discontinued, but the encyclopedia will live on and grow in the myriad digital forms which have been popular with millions for years.”

Those who shed a nostalgic tear for this all-in-one library are invariably the same people whose parents acquired a set from a travelling salesman knocking at their door. So costly was the investment, most families would buy only the one set. Ever. And never update it again. That made the Britannica a wonderful source of historic information, but practically useless for keeping up with human knowledge.

Don’t weep for its owners, though. They began the transition to digital editions at the dawn of the commercial Internet, producing a CD-Rom version in the 1990s – a few brief years after their sales peaked at 120 000 sets. Today, the print edition makes up less than 1% of the publisher’s income. The saddest statistic of all is that, for the 2010 edition – the last one in print – only 8000 sets were sold, and a further 4000 languish in warehouses.

But let’s put in perspective what we have lost in print: an encyclopaedia updated a couple of times a decade, costing more than R10 000 for the set, and containing around 70 000 articles. In short: expensive, dated and – compared to online resources – limited.

The online edition has more than 120 000 articles, costs less than R1000 for an annual subscription – the ad-supported version is free – and includes video, audio and links to related publications and material.

What’s to mourn? A business model that has not made sense for well over a decade?

Let’s look at the other extreme: Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, contains more than 3,5-million articles, and is updated daily. Following controversies about the accuracy of Wikipedia, Nature magazine conducted a study, and found more errors in a sample of Britannica articles than in a similar sample from Wikipedia.

The only real tears that are shed for the big set of books are by interior decorators who bought old sets cheap to make home and corporate libraries look established and serious.

Clearly, it is the symbolic meaning of this death that is more significant than the demise of a publishing tradition. Britannica first saw print in 1768, a year that in a way represents the democratisation of human knowledge. While only accessible to the wealthy, it gradually made its way into public libraries and ordinary homes, opening up all of history, science and nature to the masses – albeit from a British-centric perspective.

The beginning of the end of the first era of knowledge democracy came in 1989, when Compton’s published the first CD-ROM encyclopedia. They were followed by Grolier, fortuitously just as CD drives began arriving as a standard component of computers, turning Grolier into the digital equivalent of Britannica.

Microsoft saw the light, and climbed into the knowledge bed with Funk & Wagnalls to produce Encarta. By the mid-1990s, you could hardly buy a Microsoft product or a multimedia PC without Encarta being included in the bundle. Britannica had called it correctly when they refused to be Microsoft’s encyclopaedia partner, for fear of it killing print sales: Funk & Wagnalls dumped their print edition just a few years later.

The CD-ROM was, however, only a stopgap on the road to universal access to knowledge. The death knell of the printed encyclopaedia was really sounded on 23 January 1993, when the first Internet browser with a graphical user interface, NCSA Mosaic, was released. The team behind it put their expertise into Netscape Navigator, which spurred Microsoft to develop Internet Explorer, and which also became the ancestor of the Firefox browser.

Thanks to the browser, all knowledge was potentially a single click away, rather than via the equivalent of a home mortgage.

The browser killed the encyclopaedia, and for that we can be grateful.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.