Monday, March 26, 2012

Iconic Britannica Goes All Digital

Once it was sold door to door to the baby boomer’s parents hoping to give their kids an edge in school. The volumes were beautifully bound and were often the only real books found in many households. It could be purchased volume by volume beginning with “A” and ending with “Z”. Of course I am referring to the iconic Encyclopedia Britannica.

Last month, after almost 250 years, the Britannica announced it would no longer print the encyclopedia in paper and ink form. Instead the company will offer an online version for an annual subscription price of about $70. The print version retailed at about $1,400.

This decision was inevitable. Paper and ink reference books, especially those dealing with science, geography and even history are often out of date the day they come off the press. Now using the Internet and storing data in the cloud, reference material can be constantly updated and the material accessed almost anywhere using a PC, Tablet, even a phone.

The online Britannica with a subscription required will go head to head with Wikipedia which is free and partially supported by contributions. Britannica president Jorge Cauz said the move is a natural part of his company's evolution and that the print version of the encyclopedia accounts for only about 1% of revenues. The company is counting on its reputation for accuracy to set it apart from Wikipedia. The latter gets its information from “crowd sourcing,” that is allowing anyone to add information to an entry in the hopes that enough people reading and revising the entries will result in accurate information. Over time this may well be true. Nevertheless using Wikipedia as a sole source of important information can be dangerous.

The Britannica is only one of many hard copy volumes that are disappearing. The proliferation of eReaders and tablet computers has prompted some text book publishers to opt for online books. Not only does this negate the need to maintain inventory and shipping, it allows textbooks to be updated continuously. One can hope that the inflated price for textbooks, especially for college level courses, will be reduced commensurate with the savings realized by the publishers.

I for one will miss having the real books to page through. It seems to me that paging through the encyclopedia is a different experience that surfing Google or YouTube. That being said, any technology that allows the free flow of information and knowledge is a good thing. Kids will have to figure out a new way to press autumn leaves and flowers. I don’t thing a thumb drive will do it.

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