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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