Encyclopaedia Britannica Goes Digital

By Ross Brenneman — March 14, 2012 1 min read
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The ascent of digital content continued yesterday with the announcement that Encyclopædia Britannica, or “that pretty pile of books in the corner of Dad’s study,” will cease publishing a print edition after 244 years.

In their March 13 announcement, the institution’s editors praised Britannica’s craftsmanship, but said that what had until now been printed in a 32-volume set will “live on—in bigger, more numerous, and more vibrant digital forms.”

This change is more symbolic than anything. Encyclopædia Britannica Editor-in-Chief Dale Hoiberg says that the company is only finalizing a transition that began decades ago.

“In 1981, Britannica created the first digital encyclopedia (for LexisNexis) and, in 1989, the first multimedia CD; in 1994 we launched the first encyclopedia on the Internet,” he wrote in a blog post. “Britannica is proudly in the digital camp.”

Indeed, the company released an online school edition in 2002 specifically designed for PK-12 students, and has similar offerings for colleges and universities. Some products are specially tailored for English learners. And as schools continually turn to iPads and other mobile devices, Britannica will be there, too, according to the announcement.

Even in the digital camp, though, Britannica’s not the only one with a tent. In schools that balk at the price tag, or for students working at home, Britannica will continue to contend with the free, quickly updated, open-source Wikipedia, though the latter’s more visible accuracy problems leave it unloved by teachers and professors. As if to demonstrate its own flaws, Wikipedia isn’t even 100 percent sure it’s Britannica’s rival:

“Although the Britannica is now available both in multimedia form and over the Internet, its preeminence is being challenged by other online encyclopaedias, such as Wikipedia.[citation needed]

Still, better to see Encyclopædia Britannica adapt than dig in stubbornly. After all, an organization dedicated to the accurate preservation of history should know best the creed that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.