Good-bye Encyclopedia Britannica: Good-bye to the printed record

Good-bye Encyclopedia Britannica: Good-bye to the printed record

Summary: It had to happen, but as we race to leave print behind, we should remember what we're losing as well.


Bid the printed encyclopedia good-bye

Bid the printed encyclopedia good-bye

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury the print Encyclopedia Britannica, not to praise it. The evil that books do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."

Oh I could praise it, but what good would that do? After 244 years, dozens of editions and millions of sets sold, no new editions will be placed on paper. We knew this would happen. E-books sales are sky-rocketing and encyclopedia sales have dwindled to next to nothing. Today, the print edition counted for less than 1% of 's revenue.

True, the Britannica will live on online, but it's long been over-shadowed by Wikipedia. Its days are numbered.

We will never see its like again in print, and that is a pity. In part that is because I love printed books. Behind me in my office I have a copy of 1911's 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the so-called scholar's edition. But I regret its disappearance not just because of nostalgia, but because even as I acknowledge how useful it is to look things up on the Web, I also know how fragile the tissue of the Web is.

Stories disappear. For example, I wrote dozens of stories about the Department of Justice took down Microsoft's monopoly in the 90s and 00s. My colleague Mary Jo Foley wrote hundreds. Those stories are largely gone. Our words, any words, written on the Web are spoken on the wind. They are here one day, and gone the next.

Wikipedia itself is always in flux and flow. Its editors and writers change thing as they will. You can argue that Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica, but as American TV satirist Stephen Colbert proved in 2006, it's also easy to edit Wikipedia into nonsense.

In addition, as Lore Sjöberg, an Internet humorist put in a "ha-ha, only serious" posting a few years back, "The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: 'Experts are scum.' For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War -- and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge -- get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved." That's not that much of an exaggeration.

But, let's presume that Wikipedia is as accurate as it can be. Can I read about say protests in Tibet in Wikipedia in China? Probably not. As Wikipedia itself notes, "Censorship of Wikipedia has occurred by national authorities, most notably in China, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Thailand, Tunisia, United Kingdom and Uzbekistan."

Furthermore, can I ever really trust sources that can be changed at an editor's whim? At a company's demand? At a country's law? The former Soviet Union was infamous for changing encyclopedia's content depending on which way the political winds were blowing. Today, in less time than it took me to write this paragraph someone can change the "facts" in Wikipedia or any other online sources.

Print isn't perfect either as the USSR showed, but at least with print, the words stay in old editions. We can still see the past in old books. Today, the past stays only so long as Web pages don't rot away or someone decides to edit the past away.

In Ray Bradbury's classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, Firemen burn books to keep people from thinking. Today, our fast, convenient Web information burns away every day, and that's the real reason why I sincerely regret the end of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the decline of printed books in general.

Yesterday the word of the Encyclopedia Britannica might have stood against the world; now lies he there.

Related Stories:

SmartPlanet: Encyclopedia Britannica ceases printing, goes all-digital

Textbook of the Future: The hardware

The FCC's plan to bring the Internet to the poor

Digital Underclass: Libraries Aren't Dead Yet

Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?

Topics: Collaboration, Browser

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  • When everything is digital, it does get

    frighteningly easy for a government to "correct" history. Eastasia has always been at war with Oceana...
    • Not just governments

      The technology is available for anyone with the skill and motivation.
      John L. Ries
  • Three words for you.

    Way Back Machine. Here's two more. Long term archive.
  • and self-editing "copies"

    A related problem is self-edited "copies". It's generally pretty simple to save a web page or other document as either an image or a PDF and then edit the saved file, producing "proof" from a "reliable" "source". Even "secure" PDF's, etc., can often be recreated--print the PDF to a new PDF document and that won't have the security. If necessary, use PrintScreen to copy the image to the clipboard, then paste into your favorite graphics editor, increase the resolution to 300 dpi, edit to suit your taste and then save. A bit of effort, but easily doable. (If anyone wants a photo of Abe Lincoln giving their favorite political candidate a "thumbs up", let me know ... <g>)
  • Good-bye Encyclopedia Britannica

    Heaven help us when our electricity is disconnected and all our batteries are drained. At least the printed word will last longer than our fleeting INTERNET connection.
    • Heaven help us...

      Heaven help us when a fire consumes our house and all the books are burned. At least the online versions of books will last longer...
  • Bob Dylan was right

    [i]The times they are a changin'"[/i]
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
  • A sad day indeed.

    Humankind will someday regret things like this. Just thankful I have no offspring to be around when it happens.
    • Humanity woin't believe this in the future

      That we cut down valuable trees and spewed carbon everywhere delivering dead tree publishing to the world.

      They'll never burn our books now ;-)
      • Hmmmmm

        You do realize the paper that is used for printed materials, comes from tree farms right? And since trees are a renewable resource, that tree farms plant new trees after cutting down old ones. And we have more trees today, thanks to tree farms.
  • "...words, written on the Web are spoken on the wind." Well said.

    When the archaeologists dig up our generations layer, all they will find is small rectangular tablet-like objects and curious round disks slightly less than 5 inches in diameter with a hole in the middle.

    I can't help think that we are losing something valuable!
  • The feel of the true printed word.

    I keep telling friend that there is no screen in the world which has the feel of paper. As I haved read your article, my heart sunk.

    The feeling of paper comes from the resilience of paper. From the fact that, apart from theft, the words printed can't be taken away (Kindle and 1984 anyone?). The feeling is further enhanced by the fact that you know the author did his very best, as he knew his words would be there to stay.

    The quasi-permanent nature of the printed word, coupled with care of creating it, is something that the internet can't even come close to do. Nevermind the fact that books are self-sufficient and need nothing else than sunlight to be read. Nevermind that they create property. I might not own the rights to the book, but I own the book in it's physical form.
  • What is a 'fact'?

    If it it cannot be 'verified'.

    But perhaps we were all living a delusion when we thought we had something 'concrete' when we had paper in our hands. After all, it was just opinion, 'verified' by another opinion, like most of our history and science. Impossible for most of us to personally verify almost any of it.
    • Maybe it was better researched

      at least with paper, once printed, it's unchangeable, so fact checkers double and tripple checked, as it was to be a perminant record

      Now we have "gossip" more then fact. No need to verify, as if it turns out to be false later on, just delete it and pretend it never happened.
      William Farrel
      • It's more insidious than that. More than one news agency has

        edited a web story after its initial release to make it more favorable to a certain viewpoint, then presenting it as the original story.
  • Online is the perfect solution

    How many printed copies do you need to have? How much space do you need to store them? How much time do you need to search for a topic? All these questions which were challenging in previous decades are now solved with the existence of ONLINE books, where a single searchable copy is available to everyone regardless of location!
    • Storage depends what books you wanted to keep

      and how many bookshelves you had. One thing I like about books, is I can sell/trade them for new books, but e-books once you buy em, you have em forever, even if you don't like it.
  • books are historical records

    It is very interesting to read articles on the same subject written at different points of time. You can see how knowledge and perseptions change with time. Internet does not give you this ability. A Wikipedia article, say, on Afganistan will definitely change with time, but it is probably impossible to research the changes.
    • Wikipedia keeps a history of changes

      Just click "View History" near the upper right.
      • You're assuming the history has remained untouched

        during its existence. Which is precisely the point of the parent. With digital, there's no way to know if your history is actual history or has been secretly revised.