Britannica Sets Aside Hardbound Copies to Focus on Digital, Online Editions
The latest Encyclopaedia Britannica 32-volume edition will be the last to see print as its publisher announced this week the retirement of the book collection after more than two centuries of delivering knowledge to millions to around the world. David McLeish

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for nearly a quarter of a millenium the English-speaking world's singular authority on virtually all disciplines, will no longer publish a paper edition as one of the most revered icons of the pre-digital world morphs into so many gigabytes.

Actually, it's already morphed.

Encyclopaedia Britannica launched its digital edition for LexisNexis and its first multimedia CD in 1989. The Web version of the encyclopeadia came out in 1994. But all that time it kept coming out in paper. Its most recent edition, the 2010 version, was 32 volumes long and weighed 129 lbs.

It's been an amazing, 244-year run. The encyclopaedia was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768. In 1902 it became a U.S. company, and today Swiss financier Jacob Safra owns the Chicago-based publisher, Britannica Inc. Throughout the 20th century it was sold door to door. Because the encyclopaedia was so expensive, many families bought it in installments, a few volumes at a time.

Its most recent paper edition, the 2010 version, cost $1,395, according to the New York Times, and only sold 8,000 units. In fact, there are 4,000 remaining sets still in a warehouse. Contrast that with 1990 when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States alone.

In spite of our long history with print, I would like to point out that no single medium, neither books nor bits, is at the core of our mission. That mission is to be a reliable, up-to-date, and scholarly source of knowledge and learning for the general public, Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., wrote.

While sales of the printed encyclopaedia have faltered recently, Britannica's online branch has burgeoned to over 100 million users between the core Web site and the company's educational sites and apps. Britannica charges a $70 annual fee for an online subscription.

I guess it would be the end of an era if they were actually going to stop publishing it, but so long as they keep updating it ... that's fine by me, said Jeffrey Douglas, Librarian of the College at Knox College.

I definitely feel a certain nostalgia. It's one of those moments when you have to pause and say to the world is really changing, Denise Hibay, Head of Collection Development at the New York Public library said of Britannica's move to digital only publication.

What will it mean for students in six or seven years, coming in and never having used a (print) version?, mused Jeffry Archer, head of reference instruction and outreach at the University of Chicago library.

Archer's fear was that without growing up with access during middle school and high school to print editions of the Encylopaedia Britannica, students may not think of the brand as being a destination for students doing general reference work. The full product is not available to everyone online unless they're subscribing, and I don't know how many kids will have that, Archer said.

However, at least at the University of Chicago, the online subscription to the encyclopaedia is already heavily used. Our use statistics are quite high by students, Archer said.

Archer also offered the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which has been in digital form since the publication of its third edition, as a corollary to the Encyclopeadia Britannica. People are very happy to have access to that online, and it has maintained its value in the online environment, Archer said, speaking of the OED.

Books have been written about the publication of those two books, the OED and the Encyclopaedia Britannica; they certainly are scholarly milestones, but they've been supplanted digitally now, Douglas said.

However, paper versions of reference books do have advantages in terms of ease of visual scanning and comfort. There's a level of comfort when you have a large set and can page through it, Archer said.

The New York Public Library still keeps an edition of the last remaining print encyclopedia, World Book, in each of its branches, because it serves a more general audience than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, especially among school age children. However, online encyclopaedias also serve a fundamental role within the public library system.

Our public library system is vast, huge, spread over the five boroughs of New York ... the nice thing about online encyclopedias is that they're accessible everywhere, Hibay said, adding, though, that the New York Public Library does not have a subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica because of cost constraints.

Britannica Online, perhaps in imitation of its main competitor, Wikipedia, allows readers to revise entries and contribute material for review by its editors. While egalitarian, some observers fear that this could lead to a dilution of the quality of Britannica's articles.

I had high hopes for the idea of giving away knowledge. Unfortunately, that wasn't what it was about. It was all about monetizing information and selling the Britannica brand. Mostly selling, said former editor Charlie Madigan in an email to