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 , 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 Print encyclopedias are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are quickly out of date because they are not dynamic and cannot be changed to reflect new information or changing times.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.