On the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition

Have you heard?

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print. Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books that were once sold door-to-door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, company executives said. In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — 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.

— “After 244 Years, Encyclopedia Britannica Stops the Presses,” The New York Times, March 13, 2012

The Britannica folks themselves assure us that, really, it’s all good in the end:

Today we’ve announced that we will discontinue the 32-volume printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when our current inventory is gone. A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge. For one thing, the encyclopedia will live on—in bigger, more numerous, and more vibrant digital forms. And just as important, we the publishers are poised, in the digital era, to serve knowledge and learning in new ways that go way beyond reference works.

— “Change: It’s Okay. Really.” Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, March 13, 2012

Company President Jorge Cauz expands on this with a rhetorical sophistry that makes him sound like a viable candidate for political office:

At Encyclopaedia Britannica we believe that the announcement that we will no longer print the 32-volume encyclopedia is of great significance, not for what it says about our past, but for what it projects about our vibrant present and future as a digital provider of general knowledge and instructional services…By concentrating our efforts on our digital properties, we can continuously update our content and further expand the number of topics and the depth with which they are treated without the space constraints of the print set. In fact, today our digital database is much larger than what we can fit in the print set. And it is up to date because we can revise it within minutes anytime we need to, and we do it many times each day…Today is a commemoratory moment at Britannica. We are energized by the fact that our efforts of the last few years have been successful. We have completed our transition from print publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a digital provider of knowledge and e-learning solutions. The success of this transition is not only a testament to our strong brand and dedication, but also to the esteem that society places on Britannica as a reliable, trustworthy source of knowledge and instruction.

— Jorge Cauz, “Looking Ahead,” Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, March 13, 2012

Meanwhile, Princeton history professor David A. Bell points out what’s being ignored and sidestepped in this rush of self-congratulatory digital age rhetoric:

[W]ith the disappearance of paper encyclopedias, a part of the Western intellectual tradition is disappearing as well. I am not speaking of the idea of impartial, objective, and meticulously accurate reference. There is no reason this cannot be duplicated in digital media…[T]he great paper encyclopedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order. Even if they mostly organized their articles alphabetically, they also sought ways to link the material together thematically—all of it…In theory, there is no reason a digital encyclopedia could not have ambitions similar to these…But in practice, to have an encyclopedia even try to provide a systematic overview of knowledge requires a fixed, stable body of articles — a discrete edition…It might be argued that mapping out human knowledge has always, necessarily, been a quixotic project, akin to Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies”…But the ambition mattered. It mattered that one could look at a stack of volumes and say: Here are vast libraries, distilled down into an essence of human knowledge, and organized in a logical order. The books testified to the hope that, ultimately, human beings had at least a measure of control over the overpowering torrents of facts and ideas that they collectively produce. Perhaps no single human being could truly have control — what more quixotic enterprise is there than reading through an encyclopedia from cover to cover? But at least the existence of the books gave us the sense that some points of dry land remained amidst the floods, some fragments shored against our ruins. The disappearance of these grand printed volumes, while inevitable, is yet another depressing sign of just how much we are now adrift in the limitless oceans of information. 

— David A. Bell, “What We’ve Lost with the Demise of Print Encyclopedias,” The New Republic, March 19, 2012

What’s more, there’s a tentative new insight hailing from the digital age itself that throws a bucket of water on the party, especially when read against the backdrop of Bell’s observation:

On many levels, e-books seem like better alternatives to textbooks — they can be easily updated and many formats allow readers to interact with the material more, with quizzes, video, audio and other multimedia to reinforce lessons. But some studies suggest that there may be significant advantages in printed books if your goal is to remember what you read long-term…[D]ifferent media have different strengths — and it may be that physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory. More studies will likely show what material is best suited for learning in a digital format, and what type of lessons best remain in traditional textbooks.

— Maia Szalavitz, “Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?Time, March 14, 2012

Me, I’m just transfixed by the way the whole thing substantiates John David Ebert’s claim in The New Media Invasion that the fundamental thrust of our new digital culture is toward the dissolving of all physical forms into “technologies of light” that exist in a kind of virtual, spectral half-world. In Fahrenheit 451, the “book people” who live on the margins and outskirts of Bradbury’s envisioned dystopia memorize their books and then burn them so that nobody can take them away. Their motivation is diametrically opposite from that of the repressive totalitarian government, which outlaws and burns books because it fears them. “When the war’s over,” one of the book people tells us, “someday, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again.”

But us, we’re burning our books, getting rid of their physical incarnations — and instead of memorizing them, we’re relying on electricity and digital technology to remember them perpetually for us. Is it just me, or is this a dangerous game we’re playing, both practically and spiritually?

About Matt Cardin


Posted on March 19, 2012, in Society & Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the article Matt, interesting and exhaustive as always. It’s quite enervating the way technologies are becoming more and more quasi-mythical; there’s an inherent Gnostic facet to the way information collates itself electronically with very little centralised human agency. The self-realisation of our technologies seems more like an imminent danger than any sci-fi narrative.

    I believe you will be very interested in Professor Rick Roderick’s exposition of our modern predicament, in his lectures titled “The Self under Siege” which are rather poignantly relevant today. They can be downloaded for free at :


    • I very much appreciate the link, Cain. Looks like you’re correct: I will find much of interest in Roderick’s lectures! (Of interest at the moment is that he taught for years at Baylor University — just a few miles from where I now sit typing.)

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