A new era for Britannica

A new era for Britannica

March 16th, 2012 in Opinion Times

This undated product image provided by Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. shows volumes of the company's encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 said that it will stop publishing print editions of its flagship encyclopedia for the first time since the sets were originally published more than 200 years ago. (AP Photo/Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.)

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, published without interruption since 1768, is going out of print when current supplies run out. Given economic realities and the role the Internet has assumed in providing reference material, that's hardly a surprise. Still, Tuesday's announcement of the demise of the iconic publication that has played a prominent role in the life of so many Americans is a decided shock.

After all, the encylopedia was the go-to reference book for generations of American students. It was authoritative and its weighty presence -- well over 120 pounds in 30-plus volumes -- in a household provided evidence that education and knowledge was valued there. But sales of the set that cost well over $1,000 in its heyday (the current set sells for $1,395 on the Britannica website) have been in decline for a couple of decades. Indeed, the company had little choice other than to end publication of the reference books. It simply was not profitable to continue to publish them.

That does not mean the iconic brand will disappear. Online versions of Encyclopaedia Britannica currently provide information to more than 100 million people around the globe, according to company officials. There are additional growth possibilities online, too, since the publication is now available on mobile devices and on social media, where users can connect with editors. Its an almost unique melding of the old and the new.

Even so, the company, which currently earns a hefty sum annually from its online encyclopedia and educational curriculum for schools, faces challenges from other specialized, for-pay websites and from free sites like Wikipedia. The latter is an especially formidable competitor.

Wikipedia, written and edited by thousands of contributors, is shedding its reputation as an unreliable source of information and gaining respectability among both casual and more scholarly users. Still, there are millions of individuals here and around the world who have grown up with the handsome embossed, leather-bound volumes and who no doubt will continue to associate the Britannica name with utility and reliability. They surely will continue to use it in its new incarnation.

Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, says the decision to suspend print publication is "a rite of passage in this new era." That's true, but the passing of an icon should not go unnoticed.