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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, March 25, 2012

The shocked sigh heard throughout libraries this month was the announcement that Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be available in a print version when the “current run” of bound, print copies have been sold.


Librarians had wondered for some time whether Britannica could continue selling print versions with the competition from the online world of information.


Colliers Encyclopedia and Americana Encyclopedia have both discontinued their print versions, and the advance of Wikipedia on the Internet has challenged the traditional print encyclopedia.


But in some way, the end of the print Britannica seems like a real change to libraries and the way people do research.


Encyclopaedia Britannica (with its “ae” spelling) was the oldest English-language encyclopedia being produced.


The first three-volume set was published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh.  That famous set was reproduced in 1968 to commemorate the bicentennial of its release, with that set now often confused with the original due to the excellent job done in the reproduction.


The success of Britannica is shown as the set quickly expanded to 10 vol. within a decade, and by the 1820s it was a 20 vol. set.


By the 1890s, an index was added to make the work more useful.


An American partnership purchased the rights of Britannica in 1901, bringing it to the United States for the first time.


In 1920, the rights to Britannica were sold to Sears Roebuck & Co., and sets appeared in many American homes.


Britannica introduced “continuous revision” in 1936 with every article updated twice in every decade.  Contributors and editors made Britannica the premier publication for much of the 20th Century.


Supplements were common to keep the older sets current, but the standard 24 vol. set continued from 1933 to 1973.


Britannica promoted various single-volume publications dealing with specific topics to increase sales, in addition to Britannica Junior for the younger user.


In 1974, Britannica introduced a new 30 vol. format with a Micropaedia, Macropaedia, and Propaedia depending on the size of articles and structure, dropping the index completely.


I had just started in the library world when the “new” Encyclopaedia Britannica was introduced, and I watched with other librarians as people stood and stared at the new format, unsure what to do and how to use the new publication.


Despite complaints from libraries around the world, Britannica held onto the new format for a decade.  In 1985, a two-volume index was introduced, and the separated articles were merged back together.


Author C.S. Forester was one of many to claim that they read Britannica from end to end, taking about four years to do so.  It is likely that some of the Editor-in-Chief at Britannica would have also completed reading their respective editions.


The online Britannica has received numerous awards as the best online service for information, and many have switched from print to electronic in recent years.


The 1985 format, updated to 2010 will be the last print version when the current stock is sold, bringing an end to the most famous encyclopedia in the world.


Folks under the age of 40 will likely not be moved by the passage of the print Britannica, but the rest of us will note the change to our society.


We have moved from an information source with massive editing and contribution development, to an era of electronic bites of information developed by a generally unknown population.


Librarians are busy reassuring each other that life will continue, libraries will continue, but our tools continue to change.