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The Encyclopedia Britannica Has Gone Out of Print March 17, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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Kid Dynamite noted that the 2010 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica will be the last one printed.  According to the publisher, only 12,000 sets were printed, and only 8000 sold so far, for the somewhat lofty price of $1,395 a set.  At its height, in the early 1990s, 120,000 copies were sold.  About half a million households pay a $70 annual fee for the online subscription.

This article largely lays the blame at the feet of the wisdom of crowds in general and Wikipedia in particular.  While Encyclopedia Britannica disagrees, at least one study has found that the number of factual errors between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica were similar.

But accuracy is only one part of the equation.  Encyclopedia strive for a neutral tone, but the Wikipedia reader is still getting discussion pages that often carry out a debate on facts and perceived bias.  It shows you the seamy underside of the so-called pure information presented in books.

I grew up learning facts that seemed to be more-or-less black and white.  As my education progressed, the facts became less absolute and more nuanced, and I gradually learned that the truth was considerably more ambiguous than had first been presented to me.  But it was a learning process that took years.  I wonder if my learning would have been accelerated if I had access to multiple points of view earlier in the educational process.

Print encyclopedias hold a special place to me.  As a youth with limited educational and experiential opportunities, I read encyclopedias – the ones my parents managed to acquire on a very limited budget, and after I obtained my driver’s license, those that were available through the local Carnegie Public Library in the western Pennsylvania steel town in which I was raised.

Reading encyclopedias didn’t make me a better person, but it did make me a different one.  I don’t regret the passing of print information such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  In fact, when information first became available on products such as Microsoft Encarta, I marveled that I no longer had to read sequentially.  Instead, hyperlinks took me to related information far afield of the original topic, providing a sense of discovery that I didn’t experience in reading encyclopedias.

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