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Encyclopaedia Britannica pulls the print plug

March 14, 2012 |  8:26 am

Encyclopaediabritannica
Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease print publication, it announced Tuesday. The 244-year-old publication will continue to publish an online edition and provide educational materials for schools.

The media landscape has changed considerably in the Encyclopaedia Britannica's 2-1/2 centuries of publication, but nothing has had as great an effect as Wikipedia. The 11-year-old crowd-sourced encylopedia is online, and it's free. Encyclopaedia Britannica's most recent edition sells for $1,395.

What does Wikipedia have to say about it?

The Britannica was the oldest English-language encyclopaedia in production. It was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland, as three volumes. The encyclopaedia grew in size, and by its fourth edition (1801–1809) it had expanded to a well known 20-volume set. Its rising stature helped recruit eminent contributors, and the 9th edition (1875–1889) and the 11th edition (1911) are landmark encyclopaedias for scholarship and literary style. Beginning with the 11th edition, the Britannica shortened and simplified articles to broaden its appeal in the North American market. In 1933, the Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to adopt "continuous revision", in which the encyclopaedia is continually reprinted and every article updated on a schedule....

The Britannica has had difficulty remaining profitable. Some articles in earlier editions have been criticised for inaccuracy, bias, or unqualified contributors. The accuracy in parts of the present edition has likewise been questioned, although criticisms have been challenged by Britannica's management. On 13 March 2012, it was announced that Encyclopædia Britannica would no longer publish a print edition, instead focusing on its online version.[1]

That snippet shows both the pros and cons of Wikipedia. It's accessible -- I didn't have to move from my computer to look it up -- and its historical facts are laid out clearly. However, the lower paragraph has at least two assertions that call for footnotes. If "some articles" had been criticized, what were they, in what context, and by whom? The same questions arise for the assertion about the accuracy of the current edition. Wikipedia is a go-to source, but it may not always be the most authoritative one.

Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., told the New York Times, “We have very different value propositions,” referring to Wikipedia. “Britannica is going to be smaller. We cannot deal with every single cartoon character, we cannot deal with every love life of every celebrity. But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter. Britannica won’t be able to be as large, but it will always be factually correct.”

Vintage print editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica are available on Ebay. 1970 is currently $71; 1910 is $150; and 1959 is $188 -- that might be the edition Don Draper turned to. But to look up Don Draper, readers should probably to turn to Wikipedia.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

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