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March 14, 2012
Some Thoughts on Britannica Ending Its Print Version
Britannica’s announcement yesterday that the venerable encyclopedia is ceasing its print publication may be a point worth memorializing with some wistfulness, but it is not surprising. The demand for the print version seemed limited to academic institutions and public libraries given the amount of free or nearly free information available via the Internet. Britannica’s content will be one of the nearly free as its continuously updated entries are available for an annual personal subscription at $70. The New York Times article on the move notes that half a million subscribers are out there. Simple math says that’s $35 million, which does not include the other educational products from Britannica. The encyclopedia is only 15% of revenue.
I would not think that Wikipedia led to the demise of Britannica in print, though its existence probably contributed to it. Then again, Google and other search engines have their own place to play in directing individuals to casual sources of information all over the web. Britannica is a known entity with a high reputation for quality. I’m not sure the study in Nature several years ago comparing Britannica to Wikipedia did anything to ultimately diminish that reputation as much as it raised that of Wikipedia.
There are still some problems with Wikipedia as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests. Historian Timothy Messer-Kruse was rebuffed in his efforts to update Wikipedia on some of the facts concerning the Haymarket riots and trial in 1886. Though he researched his changes, his various attempts to edit the entry were rejected because they were considered a minority view. I’ve always held that Wikipedia is good for casual facts that do not necessarily need verification. I continue t hold that view.
Britannica’s problems with competing sources of information affected other similar entities. Bill Gates approached Britannica in the early 1990s and asked them to collaborate on an electronic encyclopedia. The executives at the time rejected Gates offer. He later collaborated with Funk and Wagnalls to create Encarta which was sold via optical discs and later via the web. Microsoft closed down that product in 2009. Though the print edition may be gone, Britannica lives online, beyond the lifespan of the Encarta product. Reputation is good for something. After 244 years, only the format is changing. [MG]