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After 244 Years In Print, Encyclopaedia Britannica Goes All-Digital

An Encyclopædia Britannica print set.
Encyclopædia Britannica
An Encyclopædia Britannica print set.

The digital age has taken its toll on another long-held tradition: Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print and from now on will be all digital.

Its final printed product will be the 2010 edition, which The New York Times describes as a "a 32-volume set that weighs in at 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project."

Encyclopaedia Britannica is expected to make a formal announcement on Wednesday. The Times adds:

"'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.

"But in recent years, print reference books have been almost completely wiped out by the Internet and its vast spread of resources, particularly Wikipedia, which in 11 years has helped replace the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds."

Still — this marks the first time in 244 years that the encyclopedia will not be available in print form. The AP reports it was first published in Scotland in 1768.

Now, you might have expected this and it might also point to the kind of thing that ushered in the demise of the print edition, but Wikipedia has already updated its Encyclopaedia Britannica entry to reflect the news.

Update at 8:10 p.m. ET. Digital, Mobile, Social:

"We're digital, we're mobile, and we're social," Cauz said in a statement just put out by Encyclopaedia Britannica. "We're a very different company from 20 or 30 years ago."

Here's how they explain the company's shift into the digital world:

"In announcing plans to discontinue the iconic 32-volume set, Cauz emphasized that numerous digital versions of the encyclopedia—as well as other Britannica databases for all ages—are widely available, continuously updated and significantly larger than the content in the printed encyclopedia. The online versions serve more than 100 million people worldwide, and a new app that delivers the whole encyclopedia to the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch was recently launched.

"The company is also moving vigorously in developing community features for its online users. At Britannica Online School Edition PreK-12, teachers share lesson plans. Britannica Online allows readers to make revisions directly to the encyclopedia, which are then published after editorial review and revision if necessary. Britannica language and dictionary subsidiary Merriam-Webster.com boasts community features in which visitors share thoughts on words and usage."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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