Before there was a computer in every home and smartphone, before there was an internet and a wiki, if you needed to do research you opened a book. The go-to source of reference around the world for over 200 years has been the Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB), printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768.
After the current print run is complete the EB is abandoning print and moving exclusively online.
“It’s the oldest continuously printed reference work in the English language,” Tom Panelas, a spokesman for Encyclopaedia Britannica, said. “In that time the company has printed a little over seven million copies.”
The company has been involved in digital publishing since the 70s and created what is probably the first of the digital encyclopaedeias, the LexisNexis in 1981.
“Many people know us as the publisher of those big multi-volume encyclopedias that have been a source of joy and learning since 1768. Today that encyclopedia is chiefly to be found in a multitude of digital forms that are updated daily,” the company’s website says.
As the company shuts down the presses and moves exclusively online, it faces heavycompetition, notably Wikipedia, the community-driven online encyclopedia most of us use daily.
With Google’s heavy linkage to Wikipedia they have become the de-facto resource for online research but at what cost. As a user community, wiki is only as good as the data put into it and errors of omission and fact are common throughout the system. As a commercial business EB stands by the reliability of its content.
There may not be the emotional attachement to the printed reference among the generation-x crowd. Many of them have never opened an encyclopaedia in their life. I remember hours spent at the library with a half-dozen books open in front of me as I turned the pages and dreamed. The wiki experience isn’t even close.
This is a loss of culture that saddens me because I see it as a technological shift away from the things that got us here.
Was it inevitable? Probably. Will we miss moving the heavy boxes of books? Not really. It’s a sad day but in 100 years it won’t matter to that generation. It will be a culture long forgotten. I barely remember the Viewmaster.
I won’t miss the paper cuts but I will miss the smell of the pages as they turn from dream to dream.