Farewell, Britannica (Sort Of)

Encyclopaedia Britannica has announced that its flagship set will now be solely produced as an electronic work, an announcement that has made the pages of the New York Times and other popular sources. It’s not surprising; the encyclopedia lives in the popular imagination as a repository of all that is solid about libraries and the world of knowledge, though those in our business know that librarians and, especially, patrons largely moved on years ago.

A clarification is in order: the company is not going out of the print business entirely. Rick Lumsden of Encyclopaedia Britannica clarifies that, Our recent announcement only affects the 32-volume print set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It does not mean the end of print publication for Britannica as a whole, going on to say, In fact, we just published our new 2012 Britannica Student Encyclopedia for younger readers and are publishing about 100 new titles annually in both print and ebook formats under our Britannica Educational Publishing imprint.

At a roundtable event SLJ held at ALA Midwinter in Dallas, Lumsden emphasized that the loss of serendipity so lamented by those who love print really hasn’t happened. He explained that There are far more opportunities for finding things serendipitously in digital format than in a book because things that are related are linked.

It’s not just about nostalgia
The real loss, however, will be to print-centric learners, and these are not only the older generation as is commonly believed. Along with that population are the millions who are increasingly cut off from opportunities by the lack of access to the Internet. A 2011 Pew report estimates that, in the United States, only 54% of adults living with a disability use the Internet, compared to 81 percent of adults who are not disabled. Only 55 percent of African American and 57 percent of Hispanic households have wired Internet access. And moving beyond our borders, the World Bank estimates that only 10.92 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa are online. Indeed, Sebina Levember, an information specialist in Monash University in Ruimsig, South Africa, says of Britannica’s move, I still believe we need those print formats. On the African continent we still have people who have no access to computers.

Paul A. Kobasa, Vice President, Editorial, and Editor in Chief of World Book, a competitor to Britannica, is conscious of these concerns. He explains that In addition to those who learn best using print‚ or most comfortably read material in printed and bound form‚ others affected by a decline in availability of print materials are those with limited access to technology, which is, he explains, why World Book continues to publish an annually updated edition of The World Book Encyclopedia. He concedes that It’s possible the issue of the comparative effect of print or digital presentation on cognition will recede as successive generations are habituated earlier and earlier to reading on a device rather than from a book, adding, However that goes and via whatever devices the content is delivered, the characteristics of the content should still matter.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. Margaret Heilbrun says:

    Great piece! But I dont agree with Lumsden: I think the more haphazard quality of serendipity by print is part of the attraction. The 11th edition in particular will live forever!