Closing the book: Encyclopedia Britannica goes out of print

Wow.  It really is an end of an era:

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.

Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered sets of reference books that were once sold door to door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, the company is expected to announce on Wednesday.

In a nod to the realities of the digital age — and, in particular, the competition from the hugely popular Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools, company executives said.

The last edition of the encyclopedia will be the 2010 edition, a 32-volume set that weighs in at 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a Chicago-based company, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, a set of encyclopedias on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, an object coveted not only for its usefulness but as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. The books were often a financial stretch, with many families paying for their encyclopedias in monthly installments.

Wanna buy a set?  The cost: $1,395.

Read more.


  1. I’ll miss it in a way, but it’s an idea long past it’s time. I would have guess they ceased 10 years ago or more. These things were the main source for things like book reports when I was in grade school and even high school to some degree.
    It was truly a different world then. Even when we got more sophisticated and started pulling things from academic journals or other sources, it was an all-day affair at the library to scrape up and copy perhaps a few worthwhile and reasonably timely sources. It blows me away to even contemplate the change of the last 15 years or so. The average kid now has more information at their disposal than a king or an Oxford don had for any of the past centuries. They can access it from a device in their pocket that has more computing power than the entire Allied war effort in WW II or Nasa during the moon shots.

  2. pagansister says:

    Long and proud printing history, but obviously folks today don’t reference anything in books.

  3. Patrick Sweeney says:

    Its final words “Jimmy Wales, thou hast conquered!”

  4. I may have to buy a set, although I think the beginning of the end occurred about 72-73, when they switched to the three sets in one concept — that never sat well with me for some reason.

  5. You can get these for next to nothing at flea markets now. They look good on shelves as decorative items. I can remember as a kid reading them and picking up much good info. Now the idea of leafing through an encyclopedia when I have google and wikipedia for information would not make sense. One advantage they did have over much of the internet is that you could rely on them to be pretty much unbiased and factual.

  6. Hmmm…maybe that’s why I mourn the passing of the EB far more than I miss newspapers. I gave up on print media proving me accurate, let alone unbiased, news reporting so long ago, that I don’t care if newspapers shrivel up and blow away. But the EB? So many hours reading thru the sets my dad bought for us as kids, and still reading them for benefit through college and into law school even. I admit, I’d never never buy a new set now, but still, I feel a little sad.

  7. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Good Lord! May the EB rest in peace. Back in the late 1990s I was asked to read every article having to do with Catholicism and mark the entry as either ok or in need of some revision or requiring a complete rewrite. It was a wearisome task but hunched over my computer I garnered much trivial information about the history and mores of Holy Mother the Church.

  8. I have an old set given to me. I never look at any more. I hardly ever look at any reference book any more. The internet is just fine, and wikipedia is just as good as Encyclopedia Britannia, if not better.

  9. till the juice goes off.

  10. Henry Karlson says:

    Or until one reads all kinds of false info on wiki… which is quite common…

  11. Only on the really controversial subjects. And there were editorial decisions made at Encyclopedia Britannia or any other encyclopedia of which you can agree or disagree. At least Wikipedia is fluid and can be revised. Lots of errors have been found in lots of published reference books. The general public just takes published books as “gospel” but that is only a perception.

  12. Yeah, but then I can’t type anyway. ;)

  13. Is it crazy for me to hope that they reverse their decision? Is it crazy for me enough people will be dismayed and complain that they change their mind? I really think their is a place for current, printed encyclopaedias in a world of digital media. No, the internet is not just fine. People take published books as “gospel” because there are experts involved in editing them (not necessarily true with wikipedia ) so there’s a good reason for people’s trust in them and like someone mentioned above all it takes is for the juice to go off or for somebody to pull the plug for all that info (which can be changed and manipulated a lot faster with no or little record of change) to go poof and disappear. I love the internet but it is just as expensive (and more) as a set of books, between buying the computer, paying your monthly internet-provider bill *and* paying your monthly electricity bill to keep your laptop or desktop up and running.

    Besides, the publisher is going about it the wrong way. (To me it smells of a lame “new Coke” type of decision some executive made. Remember the new Coke?) I doubt that discontinuing the printed version is going to motivate many people to sign up for $70-a-year subscriptions. If they really want to compete with Wikipedia they should keep printing the books and make the online-version free-access and advertising-supported with generous terms-of-use. That and the prestige and trust of publishing the printed version is what would make them competitive with Wikipedia online.

  14. This was the experience of my youth also. Thousands of hours of aimless but profitable browsing through every volume of the EB, as well as Britanica Junior. It was an education in itself, and not a bad one. You simply can’t do this on line. I feel so sorry for young people today.

  15. Looking at the article revision history and the talk page usually gives a pretty good idea of reliability.

  16. Wikipedia, and like sites, are wonderful for getting the “quick and dirty” rundown on any subject imaginable. Just like the old print encyclopedias, they were never really meant to be comprehensive or the final word on any subject. They’re starting points. If you need to get into the subject deeply enough to be concerned about the full range of perspectives and the veracity of facts and conclusions, you have to go to the primary sources, and they are always listed at the end of the article.

  17. You know anyone these days that’s going to lay out 14 bills for a set of books that’s obsolete the day they arrive on your doorstep? It’s a rare thing when you can get today’s generation to pay anything for information, let alone the cost of a mortgage payment or two.
    There will always a place for richly bound book versions of classic literature and art, but the day of the bound encyclopedia as a daily functional medium is dead. As dead as the vacuum tube or Pony Express or Empire-class flying boats or hydrogen zepplins or papyrus scrolls. Each of these things was once the new-fangled technology to a skeptical public. Then just unappreciated workaday things. Then they had to pass from this world, as all things must, because the world in which they were born no longer exists.

  18. “You know anyone these days that’s going to lay out 14 bills for a set of books that’s obsolete the day they arrive on your doorstep”

    I, for one. I was hoping to save up for a set this year and ironically was checking their site for it and the “Great Books” collection just before the announcement. And they are not obsolete the day they arrive, the bulk of the information remains current for the following few years and much of it for longer. There’s a reason lots of us consult the Old Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent even though it’s from the Nineteen-Tens. Besides, Britannica subscribed buyers to an annual Book of the Year that kept the encyclopedia updated.

    “It’s a rare thing when you can get today’s generation to pay anything for information, let alone the cost of a mortgage payment or two.”

    Not true. Thousands had still bought the latest edition and the company says it’s making a profit. It’s online where people are reluctant to pay for information and that’s precisely why I said Britannica’s new strategy was wrongheaded and going to get very little result. They’re getting rid of their distinctiveness and aura of trust and prestige. The thing that made them special, noble, and yes, gave them a bit of snob appeal. Now it’s going to be just another over-priced textbook publisher using an expensive subscription service to compete with a free site.

    “There will always a place for richly bound book versions of classic literature and art, but the day of the bound encyclopedia as a daily functional medium is dead”

    As long as there are wiki-wars and site crashes and the erase-button; blackouts, electrical storms and burnt hard-drives; schools and libraries, poor schools and under-funded libraries, kids without computers at home and teachers teaching basic research skills; and people who love knowledge that can be held between the hands, among other things, the need for a bound encyclopedia remains.

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