Encyclopedia Britannica to Stop Printing After 244 Years

    March 14, 2012

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 depicts a future world in which books are no longer published, and where members of society instead receive their information in rooms with screens for walls, or falling asleep at night with little seashell radios in their ears. Sound familiar? It’s not bad foresight from an author who wrote almost 60 years ago. Oh, except for this: in the novel, books aren’t published because they’re illegal to possess, and if you’re caught hoarding published material Firemen come and torch your entire house. Other than that, though, Bradbury was pretty spot on.

Print media does seem to be dying a slow, protracted death, though, and while books will no doubt stick around in our culture for generations to come, their dominance in the field of information propagation is already at an end. Unlike in Bradbury’s novel (available now in both print and digital formats), the end of books is less likely to come with a bang than with a whimper. In the past few years, newspapers and magazines have started to founder and die, marketers have increasingly eschewed print media for online advertisting, and last May Amazon announced that the Kindle overtook paperbacks in total sales. Now another another icon of the print world is going digital-only, as the Encyclopedia Britannica announced yesterday that it will cease its 244-year print run and focus on publishing its content solely through interactive media. Here’s a video released by the company explaining the new step in its product’s evolution.

The company states that this development–though certainly a momentous event in the company’s quarter-millenial history–is “in a larger sense … just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.”

“For one thing, the encyclopedia will live on—in bigger, more numerous, and more vibrant digital forms. And just as important, we the publishers are poised, in the digital era, to serve knowledge and learning in new ways that go way beyond reference works. In fact, we already do,” says the Britannica Blog.

This means that there will be no 2012 publication of the hitherto bienally-updated multi-volume encyclopedia set, and Jeopardy runners-up will have to get a new parting gift to grace their homes (or wait–didn’t they just start getting money several years ago?). The encyclopedia will also be competing more directly with Web-based, open source reference sites like Wikipedia. Currently the Britannica Online service costs subscribers $69.95, which help pays a team of over 100 professional editors and numerous expert contributors. A print version of the final set is listed on the site at $1,395.00.

The 2010 release will be the final print edition. It’s comprised of 32 volumes containing over 65,000 articles.

I’ve long been a fan of holding books in my hands, rifling through crisp new pages, smelling musty old volumes, and throwing a copy of my favorite text into my backpack without worrying about finding a power outlet or wireless hotspot to connect to. So this news comes as a bit of a (very minor) personal tragedy to bibliophiles like me. However, I can’t complain too much, as I never exactly found it in my budget to shell out fourteen hundred for a clean, leather-bound set. Britannica is doing what it’s got to do to stay competitive in today’s market, against content that’s edited and updated daily, even hourly. So we’ll say goodbye to 244 years of books most of us couldn’t afford to put on our shelves, and I might try to pick up a 2010 set years down the road, provided it doesn’t become a collector’s item.

There’s one thing about the announcement that I haven’t made peace with yet, though. How will I one day explain to my now young nieces and nephews, even my own yet unborn children, why this sketch is funny?