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

It had to happen, but as we race to leave print behind, we should remember what we're losing as well.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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