Encyclopedia Britannica halts print publication after 244 years

Source: Guardian Unlimited

Its legacy winds back through centuries and across continents, past the birth of America to the waning days of the Enlightenment. It is a record of humanity’s achievements in war and peace, art and science, exploration and discovery. It has been taken to represent the sum of all human knowledge.

And now it’s going out of print.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that after 244 years, dozens of editions and more than 7m sets sold, no new editions will be put to paper. The 32 volumes of the 2010 installment, it turns out, were the last. Future editions will live exclusively online.

For some readers the news will provoke malaise at the wayward course of this misguided age. Others will wonder, in the era of Wikipedia, what took the dinosaur so long to die. Neither view quite captures the company or the crossroads.

Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, suggested that the encyclopedia was already something of a relic within the company itself, which has long since moved its main business away from its trademark publication and into online educational tools.

“The company has changed from a reference provider to an instructional solutions provider,” Cauz said. He projects that only 15% of the company’s revenue this year will come from its namesake publication, mostly through subscriptions and app purchases. “The vast majority” of the remaining 85% of revenue is expected to come from educational products and services, said Cauz, who declined to provide dollar amounts but said the company was profitable.

Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, is owned by the Swiss banking magnate Jacqui Safra. The company’s websites, which include Merriam-Webster dictionaries, attracted more than 450 million users over the course of 2011, according to internal numbers.

If the company’s move over the last decade into the education market is an impressive example of corporate versatility, the competitive difficulties the encyclopedia faces are easy to grasp.

Wikipedia English has 3.9m articles. The comprehensive Britannica has about 120,000. Wikipedia is free. The DVD Britannica, which includes two dictionaries and a thesaurus, costs $30 on Amazon. Individuals will also be able to sign up for an annual $70 subscription (universities will be charged about $1 per student).

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Categories: Education, Educational Resources, Europe

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