At a time when schools are relying more and more on digital resources, the announcement this month that Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease publishing the print edition of its 32-volume set and focus efforts on its digital offerings was unlikely to cause much angst among students and teachers. In fact, the news of the demise of the printed set after 244 years drew some questions about the need for schools, especially in a financially challenging environment, to pay for such reference materials—whether they be online or in print—in an age of seemingly limitless free resources available on the Web.
But encyclopedias and other reference materials continue to play a crucial role in K-12 schools, school librarians say.
“There’s a real sense of security to be able to [direct students to resources like encyclopedias],” said Susi Grissom, the librarian at the 396-student William B. Travis Academy and Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted, in the Dallas school district.
Since students must also learn how to evaluate the reliability of websites and free online resources, said Ms. Grissom, starting with a trusted reference source in the research phase of a project gives students a good foundation and point of comparison when they move on to other resources.
“If you put the search term ‘Bolivia’ into Encyclopaedia Britannica, you’re going to get a lot of hits,” she said, “but not the millions of hits that you’ll get with Google as the search engine.”
The Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica’s decision not to continue printing the encyclopedia will not affect her school, which serves grades 4-8, said Ms. Grissom. For many years, Vanguard has subscribed to the digital offerings of the Encyclopaedia Britannica instead, including the school edition—which has three separate online encyclopedias for elementary, middle, and high school students—as well as Britannica’s database of rights-cleared images for students to use in research projects.
Once the remaining stock is sold out, the oldest English-language encyclopedia will only be available in digital form.
The school also uses Britannica’s online global reference center, which provides information in multiple languages. Until last year, the subscriptions were paid for by the Texas Education Agency for all schools in the state, but budget cuts eliminated that funding. Fortunately, said Ms. Grissom, her school has been able to pay for the subscription from its own funds, so her students still have access to the materials.
School subscriptions cost 67 cents per student with a minimum of $425 per school for a yearly subscription. Larger districts and consortia may be eligible for a discount, according to the company.
The library also has subscriptions to other encyclopedias, such as World Book, she said.
Having a suite of reference resources that are appropriate for elementary school pupils all the way through high schoolers is an advantage, said Ms. Grissom. And having the materials be online, as opposed to print, helps ensure that more than one student can use the materials at the same time, she said.
Carl A. Harvey, the president of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians, said the proliferation of online resources has shifted the librarian’s role from helping students find information to helping them sort through and evaluate the vast amounts of information they encounter.
“How do you narrow that focus?” and “How do you make sure it’s accurate information?” are questions librarians are helping students answer, he said.
Updating the Brand
But the decision to announce the end of the print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was first published in 1768, did not come from pressure from online competitors such as Wikipedia, said Michael Ross, Britannica’s senior vice president for digital learning. Instead, he said, it stemmed from the company’s desire to reframe its reputation from a traditional reference publisher to a provider of curricular content—both print and digital—and online materials.
“We just didn’t want to be defined anymore by that print set,” Mr. Ross said. “It’s not brand-compliant, and it distracts the marketplace from what we’re doing.”
Less than 1 percent of the company’s current revenue comes from the print encyclopedia, while 85 percent is from school- and library-focused digital products and 15 percent is from consumer online subscriptions, according to Tom Panelas, a spokesman for the company.
An online subscription costs $70 a year, or $1.99 per month for the iPad application, while the print version costs $1,395.
Part of what sets Britannica’s products apart from free resources is the accountability that comes with it, said Mr. Ross.
“We provide a safe haven. We’re going to be more right than wrong. And if we’re wrong, then we’re accountable,” he said. “Our editors have names and faces. Our contributors are Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates.”
Digital vs. Print
A Britannica competitor, Encyclopedia Americana, published by the New York City-based Scholastic, ceased publishing its print edition in 2006, moving its efforts online under the Grolier Online umbrella, said Hugh Roome, the president of consumer and professional publishing at Scholastic.
“We started in the 1830s to try to capture all the available information on the planet,” Mr. Roome said, “and about 10 years ago we looked at it and said, ‘It’s much more exciting to have a digital version on the Web.’ ”
Now, students can use Grolier Online to find resources specific to their reading levels, he said, and Grolier’s articles provide links to other websites and resources on the Internet that have been previously vetted by Scholastic’s editors. In addition, the articles are updated with current events, said Mr. Roome.
But not all encyclopedia publishers are ready to give up print publishing. The Chicago-based World Book continues to publish a new edition of its 22-volume print encyclopedia set each year.
“Some children find that they absorb information more readily from a print product, or just as readily from print, as a digital form,” said Paul Kobasa, the editor-in-chief and vice president of editorial for World Book, “so we try to make our materials available to them in the forms that best match their learning mode.”
In addition, continuing to print physical copies of the encyclopedia is important for schools and students that may not have access to a steady Internet connection, he said.
World Book also provides a digital version of the encyclopedia online as well as curricular offerings in social studies, science, and math, Mr. Kobasa said.
“There are opportunities to be had in digital presentation of material that we do not have in print, such as audio, video, animation, and simulations, where those forms help us explain content more effectively than text alone,” he said.
“There are many good sources of information to be found on the Internet, and we don’t dispute that, but what we do say is that not many of those sources of information have been created specifically for school-age children,” said Mr. Kobasa. “We provide products that are accurate, authoritative, enjoyable to read, and above all, useful to the person coming to that information.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as As Print Fades, Encyclopedias Endure in Schools