The Beauty That Was the Printed Encyclopedia Britannica

By: Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary A long time ago, my mother was a sales lady for the Encyclopedia Britannica. In appreciation for her efforts, the Chicago branch of the Encyclopedia Britannica company gave us free complete volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I never forgot them—beautiful leather bound editions filled with spectacular drawings, color photos, fantastic art and breathtaking illustrations that made the books look like magic! Eventually my parents sold the set to one of my relatives. Even if the set they got was out-of-date, it was still something that if I had it I would have kept it for years to come. Whenever I looked through the grand print edition of the whole Encyclopedia Britannica set during my free time (and even then I rarely had free time), I always found something new in it. But it was not just the knowledge that was contained in it, but the feel of the pages and the soft leather covers that made each volume special.

Alas, this will be no more. As of 2010 the Encyclopedia Britannica made its last print edition of the encyclopedia itself. The whole encyclopedia has gone totally digital. It can now be found online only, and only by subscription. The company recently announced it will print no more editions. Why did the Encyclopedia Britannica do this? In an online version, the encyclopedia can be continually updated, it can be changed if an entry is wrong or incomplete, and it can contain far, far more entries in far quicker time. The company no longer has to wait one year to print the next latest edition. Yes, the Encyclopedia Britannica is very much keeping up with the technology at hand. This has always been its history. The oldest English language encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica was started in 1768, and ever since was one of the best-known volumes of knowledge in the English speaking world.

In 1994, the Encyclopedia Britannica started its first online edition. Ever since then the online edition became the more important source for the company as well as for its readership. By 2006, over half of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s revenue came from its online edition. This led to the next step of discontinuing the print edition of the encyclopedia. This seems to be the trend among encyclopedia companies. Along with the Encyclopedia Britannica, the next two best known encyclopedia sets were the Encyclopedia Americana and Collier’s Encyclopedia. These three respected encyclopedia companies were known as the “A(Americana)B(Britannica) and C’s” (Colliers) of all encyclopedias. Colliers ceased its print edition in 1998, and the Encyclopedia Americana still continues to make print editions for now. But how long will print editions of encyclopedias—any encyclopedia sets—continue? The future looks pretty grim for print editions of encyclopedias, or for books in general. I personally find it sad, since in my view printed books have a beauty and personality that digital computer texts completely lack.

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