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Encyclopedia Britannica Closes the Book on Print

Encyclopedia Britannica Closes the Book on Print

The giant, heavy, pricey volumes that made up each edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica are now history. After nearly 250 years, Britannica has opted to stop making print editions of its encyclopedia. Its online portal will remain, though it will continue to face stiff competition from free rivals like Wikipedia. However, Britannica still has some assets it could take advantage of.

By Rachelle Dragani
03/15/12 10:45 AM PT

Encyclopedia Britannica will switch to an all-digital format, bringing its 244-year printing history to a close.

It's time to concentrate on expanding coverage for digital consumers rather than continuing to print the heavy, relatively expensive volumes, said the Chicago-based company that makes the reference books.

The final print edition is the 2010 volume. The 32-volume set weighs 129 pounds and goes for US$1,395.

Since most of its users now access its information digitally, according to a video from the company announcing the switch, the encyclopedia maker will now focus its attention on making its information fit for consumption on smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.

Encyclopedia Britannica has been dealing with a decline in revenue from its published volumes and now relies mostly on its educational line of products. It also earns on its website subscribers, which pay each $70 per year for total access to its database and mobile apps.

Encyclopedia Britannica didn't respond to our requests for comment.

Out With the Old

The switch to a digital model is a sign of the times for an information company that has its roots in print, said Deborah S. Chung, associate professor at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications.

"This move speaks to the enormous transformative impact that digital media is having on the way individuals consume and acquire information," Chung told the E-Commerce Times.

With so much content available for free online, mainly from its encyclopedic rival Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica has to persuade its customers that its information is error-free and more trustworthy.

Its contributors have included experts in a diverse range of fields, such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Arnold Palmer, Bill Clinton and many others. Conversely, Wikipedia entires can be edited by anyone. Some of its articles are overseen by dedicated editors, and many entries cite respected journals and books as sources. However, there's concern that Wikipedia is establishing itself in the minds of many young people as a true encyclopedia, according to Burton St. John III, associate professor of communication at Old Dominion University.

Proving Itself

In some ways, Britannica is making changes that resemble its online rival. Encyclopedia Britannica offers a contributor feedback system where online users can submit changes that then go through a review process. But persuading users to pay for its information is still a challenge for the company.

"Many paywall experiments have failed, but credibility seems to be an important variable in how people choose to interact with information," said Chung.

Where Britannica can have a leg up over Wikipedia, said St. John, is to feature first-hand documents or research on the site, which Wikipedia doesn't do. It would give the digital model the cutting-edge advantage that print volumes lack.

"If Encyclopedia Britannica can actually use the quick turnaround aspect of the Web and put up primary information, it will have a unique claim against Wikipedia," said St. John.


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