Will Encyclopaedia Britannica Live On Only in the History Books?

Maybe if it’s an e-book.

After almost two and a half centuries of publication, Britannica is no more. Between Google and Wikipedia, it took less than two decades to render the well-respected encyclopaedia useless. However, the Britannica website is still going to stay active, so it’s not as if we have lost a resource all together. But e-books readers and smartphones are the way of the future, and carrying around gigantic books is quickly becoming the way of the past. Why did this happen, and is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Two hundred and forty four years ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Latin for “British Encyclopaedia,” thanks Wikipedia) started out of Edinburgh as a response to a rival French encyclopaedia. Within a few generations, it had become a major encyclopaedia, and it is in today’s era well-known and well-respected. However, whereas 120,000 copies of the Britannica book sets were sold in 1990 (its peak), only 8,000 were sold in 2010. So the question is now: How could this have happened?

Dan Pink gave an interesting talk in 2009 about the “surprising science of motivation” in which he shows that psychology can turn the conventional wisdom of economics on its head. He gave an interesting explanation that can inform this case. If you have twenty minutes to spare, spend it getting blown away by this fascinating talk:

[In] the mid-1990s, Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They had deployed all the right incentives, all the right incentives. They paid professionals to write and edit thousands of articles. Well-compensated managers oversaw the whole thing to make sure it came in on budget and on time.

A few years later another encyclopedia got started. Different model, right? Do it for fun. No one gets paid a cent, or a Euro or a Yen. Do it because you like to do it.

Now if you had – just 10 years ago – if you had gone to an economist, anywhere, and said, “Hey, I’ve got these two different models for creating an encyclopedia. If they went head to head, who would win?” 10 years ago you could not have found a single sober economist anywhere on planet Earth who would have predicted the Wikipedia model.

The New York Times also wrote an insightful article:

Since it was started 11 years ago, Wikipedia has moved a long way toward replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds. The site is now written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, and it has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.

Wikipedia also regularly meets the 21st-century mandate of providing instantly updated material. And it has nearly four million articles in English, including some on pop culture topics that would not be considered worthy of a mention in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.] said that he believed Britannica’s competitive advantage with Wikipedia came from its prestigious sources, its carefully edited entries and the trust that was tied to the brand.

[. . .] But one widely publicized study, published in 2005 by Nature, called into question Britannica’s presumed accuracy advantage over Wikipedia. The study said that out of 42 competing entries, Wikipedia made an average of four errors in each article, and Britannica three. Britannica responded with a lengthy rebuttal saying the study was error-laden and “completely without merit.”

Whether or not Britannica is reliable like Wikipedia does not seem to matter. I’m curious how long it can last in the digital age. After all, only 15% of Britannica’s revenue comes from subscriptions to its website. With the “free information” model of Wikipedia, and being accessed by the “free music” generation, I can’t imagine Britannica staying alive much longer.

Is this a bad thing? Well, it’s certainly not a “good” thing to lose one more useful source of valuable information. But for most families, it’s not going to make much of a difference. With the internet, people are hesitant to stock their shelves with more expensive junk when you can get that information quickly, free, and without taking up any physical space. So I don’t think most people are even going to notice that Britannica is even gone, because not many kids doing schoolwork even know it was there.

The NY Times article also mentioned an interesting anecdote:

Charles Fuller, a geography professor who lives in the Chicago suburbs, put his 1992 edition on sale on Craigslist last Sunday. For years, he has neglected the print encyclopedias, he said in an interview, and now prefers to use his iPhone to look up facts quickly. He and his wife are downsizing and relocating to California, he said, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica will not be coming with them, a loss he acknowledges with a hint of wistfulness.

“They’re not obsolete,” Mr. Fuller said. “When I’m doing serious research, I still use the print books. And they look really beautiful on the bookshelves.”

I speculate that the utility (or lack thereof) of having books on a bookshelf will be largely lost in the next few generations. Then again, these things are difficult to predict. I expected wrist watches to have died out by now, considering how everyone checks the time on their mobile phones nowadays, but they’re still selling.

Perhaps the way we judge each other on the decorum of our homes will be less visual in the future. Instead of “this is a fancy encyclopedia collection you’ve got on this bookshelf,” we may be saying “I wonder what books you’ve got stored on that iPad 14?”

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2 Responses to Will Encyclopaedia Britannica Live On Only in the History Books?

  1. Leslie says:

    It is an inevitable tidal wave that books are going away. However nothing will replace the tactile and intellectual experience of holding and reading real books and turning printed pages.

    My parents bought an Encyclopedia Britannica set along with The Great Books of the World — and anytime at the dinner table that we had a question about this or that, the kids would run to the Encyclopaedia and find the answer. In finding the right page we’d often find some other interesting arcane fact or bit of history. Those days of just “stumbling upon” information are over….. now our searches for information are direct and immediate, leaving little chance of just happening upon other knowledge that would make us more enlightened, more Renaissance individuals.

    In the past, owning a library gave others a clue as to who you are. I always looked at family friends’ bookshelves to pull something odd and unusual that we wouldn’t have. I learned that so and so was into photography, or military regalia, or loved French literature, or jazz. It gave me an insight into that person, his/her interests, culture, passions.

    What do we really know about our friends’ and neighbors’ passions now, when where the bookshelves used to be, everyone now has a 55″ flat screen TV, and we all read our news, facts and fiction off a Smartphone, iPad or Kindle?

    The paperless, electronic information age augurs the complete homogenization of society, where everyone will have access to all the same information at the same time, that all looks pretty much the same.

    It will be a society one where no one will open a slightly worn hardbound book to find the elegant cursive of the book’s past owner, notes in the margins, probing us to think imagine that someone who long ago read that same book. No more will we loan out books and borrow from friends, enjoying the cameraderie of sharing the same printed pages. Gone will be the curiosity of peering at bookshelves heavy with tomes, wondering “what should I read next?”

    The paperless will have the effect of dumbing down our intellectual curiosity and imagination, reducing our appetite to “word bytes” and “news” such as on Yahoo! and articles in “OMG!” It is the packaging and compressing and marketing of information into “small plates”. The experience of reading will become much like the “American Idol” singer has become to music. Technically flawless, but man that song just sucks.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Leslie, thanks for the comment!
      Very interesting information you wrote.

      I suspect that what you attribute to being the benefit of books was really more a simple reflection of good parenting. I think somewhere in the world now there’s a family doing the same thing, except using the internet instead of books to look up information. In fact, your distaste for e-books reminds me of the shift from albums & CDs to mp3’s. The older generation hates it, and it starts a little bit rocky, but eventually everyone likes it.

      I believe that in 50 years, children will be saying “I can’t believe we stocked our houses with BOOKS!” And our homes will have more space to fill with whatever future gizmos and gadgets are waiting for us in the future. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, I’m just saying it’s inevitable – it’s just a matter of time.

      As for what you mentioned about the internet being direct, I would have to vehemently disagree. The website Wikipedia alone is a haven of virtual exploration, known for its unexpected hyperlinks peppered throughout the pages, often leading to information that a book would simply not be able to contain. I’m not arguing that it’s the greatest website ever or all the information is good/true, but you certainly find more than you were looking for when you’re researching it.

      Furthermore, a major advantage over books is that the time spent flipping through pages and finding the right spot is gone on the internet; because websites can place anchors and use links very effectively, not to mention the search feature that allows me to find a specific word in a huge text. I would not be able to do the things I do today (i.e., researching, blogging, language learning) if it had not been for the speed at which I can find information. In fact, I would say the age of “stumbling upon information” has barely just begun.

      I agree with your sentiments about owning a personal library, which is why I wrote the final paragraph in the article above. But I again disagree with the notion that we will become homogenized, saying “everyone will have access to all the same information at the same time, that all looks pretty much the same.” After all, don’t we already have access to the same information? Is there some esoteric knowledge that only comes from books? I can basically find anything that anyone else can – even out-of-print books can be bought over certain websites like ebay.

      It’s not like if you give a million people 100 free e-books, they’ll all read the same ones. They might read all of them, or prioritize and read the more intriguing ones, or not read any. This choice, mixed in the fact that there are way more books than 100 to choose from, makes it so that we will never be homogenized via books. It’s just impossible. Or to think of it another way, if we could quit our jobs, and every author in the world stopped writing, and we spent every waking hour of every day reading, we still could not finish all the books in the world. So we would have to choose what to read.

      So putting the text in books into a software format is not going to fundamentally conform our psychology. Instead of displaying our interests via books in a library, we will have to demonstrate our interests through conversation, and pick up how knowledgable and intrigued the person we’re speaking to are on a subject. Maybe this will make us more perceptive. Or maybe people will be buying props and hanging certain pictures to display their interests – no books required. No one knows, and we probably won’t find out until two or three generations later.

      You also said:
      It will be a society one where no one will open a slightly worn hardbound book to find the elegant cursive of the book’s past owner, notes in the margins, probing us to think imagine that someone who long ago read that same book. No more will we loan out books and borrow from friends, enjoying the cameraderie of sharing the same printed pages. Gone will be the curiosity of peering at bookshelves heavy with tomes, wondering “what should I read next?”
      You’re right. I’m very curious to see what effect this has on authors and consumers, because I know many readers enjoy getting autographs, and that’s a big pull for authors on book tours. But I suspect that instead of lending books, peers will simply be recommending them, making relatively little change in the consumption of our information.

      Lastly, I wouldn’t make the leap that our intellectual curiosity and imagination will be “dumbed down,” as you said. I think a more immediate effect will be the ever-shortening of our attention spans. People already tend not to wait for websites to load after only four seconds, and if you look at the time spent on each camera shot in movies from 100 years ago to those of today, they’re getting shorter and shorter. And if you really want to argue about the detriments of such internet-based sources of information, I would start with the youth’s perception of its infallibility.

      To be honest, I’m not totally gung-ho about e-books. It’s just that it’s hard to argue with some of their benefits. For example, I like to read, but traveling/moving when you have lots of books is a huge hassle. E-books solve a lot of problems that books will never be able to.

      Sorry for my book-sized reply.

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