The Encyclopedia Brittanica announced this week that, after 244 years, and like the OED not long ago, it was discontinuing its print-based editions. Tim Carmody has a very nicely-written piece on Wired, entitled “Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Brittanica. Windows Did.”
Print will survive. Books will survive even longer. It’s print as a marker of prestige that’s dying.
Historian Yoni Appelbaum notes that from the beginning, Britannica‘s cultural project as a print artifact was as much about the appearance of knowledge as knowledge itself. Britannica “sold $250 worth of books for $1500 to middle class parents buying an edge for their kids,” Appelbaum told me, citing Shane Greenstein and Michelle Devereux’s study “The Crisis at Encyclopædia Britannica.”
In short, Britannica was the 18th/19th century equivalent of a shelf full of SAT prep guides. Or later, a family computer.
“I suspect almost no one ever opened their Britannicas,” says Appelbaum. “Britannica’s own market research showed that the typical encyclopedia owner opened his or her volumes less than once a year,” say Greenstein and Devereux.
“It’s not that Encarta made knowledge cheaper,” adds Appelbaum, “it’s that technology supplanted its role as a purchasable ‘edge’ for over-anxious parents. They bought junior a new PC instead of a Britannica.”
The article’s not long, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.
In the meantime, I love the fact that I can now carry both the Shorter OED and the Encyclopedia Britannica in my pocket…