Today In History: On March 15, 2012, The Encyclopedia Britannica Went Out Of Print

All my life, I have (with some justification) acquired nicknames based on my similarity and affinity to encyclopedias. As a child I was sometimes called (in a rather mocking way) ‘Encyclopedia Boy’ because of my fondness for reading encyclopedias. Some friends of mine also have the habit (slightly more complementary) of calling me a ‘my size encyclopedia.’ I’m not bothered by this, as I’m a bookish person with many interests and a reasonably good memory. But it appears as if these jokes and nicknames will soon be incomprehensible as encyclopedias are in print less and less.

Just last week, on March 15, according to the New York Times [1], the Encyclopedia Britannica, long the most prestigious of all encyclopedias, went out of print. The copyright owners felt it was no longer profitable to print out volumes of books that few people were reading anymore, as libraries and (presumably book readers) were more interested in saving space that would be taken up by a giant set of encyclopedias for a new computer. Indeed, it has been a while since I looked in an encyclopedia for facts, and I’m a fairly encyclopedia-friendly person.

This day has probably been inevitable for a long while. Compared to dynamic web encyclopedias like wikipedia, a print-based encyclopedia offers heavy disadvantages that are no longer greatly counterbalanced by the greater name and reputation that the Encyclopedia Britannica has achieved after 244 years. Print encyclopedias are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are quickly out of date because they are not dynamic and cannot be changed to reflect new information or changing times. These are fatal flaws for information sources these days, as much as some people would prefer the solid reliability of the Encyclopedia Britannica (some people I know are particularly fond of a certain early 20th century version that apparently had some intriguing information about Christian history; I think it was the 14th edition but I may be mistaken).

Whether we like it or not, we are moving to a world that prefers to gain its information online, to take advantage of how easy it is to store massive amounts of information in little bits, since memory is far cheaper than text. I suppose that even if I am a little later than most to this trend that my own habits of internet publishing may be a fitting sign of the times. It appears as if print publishing is rapidly losing the ability to compete with internet publishing, as the fixed nature of texts conflicts with the desire of our world to be flexible and quick to change and update information, even as the foundations of our own worldview because less solid and less deep. There are always pluses and minuses to every change in culture and fashion.

We ought to be aware of the shift of culture and fashion that has led the Encyclopedia Britannica to go out of print. Our culture appears less interested in timeless and fixed truths than it is in the shifting sands of trivia and data and information. We are rapidly losing the capacity to make sense and discern between reliable and unreliable information while, or the ability to cite our sources, even as we are growing increasingly dependent on virtual information. If we become savvy users of internet publishing, we may yet be able to survive without harm, but if we remain uncritical about what we see online, with fewer and fewer options in print to compare information with, we may find ourselves deceived especially as internet comes under scrutiny from ever-more vigilant authorities who wish to track our reading to better determine our thoughts and opinions, with the intent to prosecute those who stray from the acceptable and official lies and half-truths of the place and time. Consider yourself warned; the day may come when we could use the fixity of texts to provide a balance to the fluid and easily corruptible nature of our internet sources of information.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Today In History: On March 15, 2012, The Encyclopedia Britannica Went Out Of Print

  1. Ted Keener says:


    * I also was quite ‘bookish’ & appreciated encyclopedias as well.

    * Perhaps scholarly intelligence & encyclopdias are both becoming more rare.. Though I’m sure intelligent minds are born every day there must me right conditions for said minds to flourish: Good accurate information fed to young learning minds is invaluable, otherwise they have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ so to speak, rediscovering truth on their own by trial & error & other methods..


    • Well, one of the risks of googling is not knowing as easily who is responsible for the material. A lot of students nowadays think of Google as the source of the information, and cannot recognize the real source of the information behind the link. An entire business of SEO is designed to take advantage of the quirks of Google (and other search engines) to ensure that certain links rise to the top and are more viewed, while other information and sources get shoved to the bottom of a very lengthy list. Such a source is very easy to corrupt and wold give a false impression of what information exists about a given subject. Sadly, the internet is not as free as we would wish it to be. I’m not sure if scholarly intelligence is becoming more rare, but it does not seem greatly appreciated to me these days, and that is something I view with concern, because a scholar is not in a hurry, but is deliberative, and everything is in a hurry these days.

  2. Jerri says:

    Hi, since this is happening…just how trustworthy and reliable do you think wikipedia is? And thank you for answer. Jerri

    • For now I think wikipedia is reasonably reliable, at least insofar as it contains cited links to other information that can be checked. But wikipedia can easily be tampered with, and entries have been tampered with before. Much depends on whether the entries are being written by friends or enemies, after all, despite the way in which wikipedia strives for a “neutral” tone.

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