The Britannica dead at 224


It took 11 centuries to go from the hand-written scroll to Gutenberg’s movable type. Things move quicker now.

The Wright Brothers made the first controlled, heavier-than-air flight in 1903. That it took a mere 66 additional years for mankind to reach the moon seemed like astonishingly fast progress to those who grew up in the 20th century.

But ask today’s child why we ever needed telephone booths, or how long ago the man said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” (Ken Olson, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.)

The 32-volume, 129-pound Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard of reference works. But last Tuesday, publishers of the Britannica — which first went on sale in Edinburgh in 1768 — announced that after they sell off their remaining 4,000 sets at $1,395 apiece, there will be no more. The low cost and ability to constantly update digital, online versions spelled the doom of such expensive and cumbersome products.

Sales of the “dead-tree” Britannica peaked in 1990, with 120,000 sets sold in the United States. But Britannica has sold only about 8,000 sets of its last print edition, the 2010. Today, print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of Britannica’s revenue, reports The New York Times.

Following on the heels of the failure of “big box” Borders bookstores, Britannica’s demise will doubtless evoke many an obituary for “the book,” as well as the non-digital newspaper.

Both industries are indeed moving to parallel digital platforms at a rapid pace. But not only are the death notices premature, they lack a certain nuance.

Our cities are a lot cleaner today than when thousands of horses provided the main means of transport. But riches still await the breeder of champion thoroughbreds. Today’s print products, as well, will find new forms and new niches.

For one thing, you might be surprised how much content of the “free” Internet is cribbed from traditional print sources. If online providers had to start paying to gather all that information, how long could they remain “free”?

And aside from the website of your local newspaper — which still pays the overhead of those local news gatherers — how useful is the Internet when you search for up-to-date news about your own local community?

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This editorial appeared March 19 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.