Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Encyclopaedia Britannica ends Print Editions

Sadly, the reflection of changing times !!

Can you relate a Scottish Master Printer, Naturalist, Anitiquary on whose tombstone was written ‘here lies a man who did honour to human nature’ – William Smellie (1740-1795) to a Company founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 18th century, in the atmosphere of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose reputation grew throughout the publication of its subsequent volumes.

Before the advent of World Wide Web, Google search and people’s over reliance on articles of Wikipedia, it was the one and only  fountain of knowledge ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’.

Since 1985, the Britannica has had four parts: the Micropædia, the Macropædia, the Propædia, and a two-volume index. The Britannica's articles are found in the Micro- and Macropædia, which encompass 12 and 17 volumes, respectively, each volume having roughly one thousand pages. The 2007 Macropædia had 699 in-depth articles, ranging in length from 2 to 310 pages and having references and named contributors. In contrast, the 2007 Micropædia has roughly 65,000 articles, the vast majority (about 97%) of which contain fewer than 750 words, no references, and no named contributors. The Micropædia articles are intended for quick fact-checking and to help in finding more thorough information in the Macropædia. The Macropædia articles are meant both as authoritative, well-written articles on their subjects and as storehouses of information not covered elsewhere. The longest article (310 pages) is on the United States, and resulted from the merger of the articles on the individual states.

Encyclopædia Britannica (Latin for "British Encyclopaedia"), is  published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.  It is available  in print, as a DVD, and on the Internet. It is written and continuously updated by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 expert contributors. It is regarded as one of the most scholarly of encyclopaedias.

It was  first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland as three volumes. Beginning with the 11th editionin 1911, the Britannica shortened and simplified articles to broaden its appeal in the North American market. The current 15th edition has a unique three-part structure: a 12-volume Micropædia of short articles (generally fewer than 750 words), a 17-volume Macropædia of long articles (two to 310 pages) and a single Propædia volume to give a hierarchical outline of knowledge.  

Sadly, on 13 March 2012, it was announced that after 244 years, the Encyclopædia Britannica is going out of print, instead focusing on its online encyclopedia. In tune with the challenging times, the Britannica has had difficulty remaining profitable. Some articles in earlier editions have been criticised for inaccuracy, bias, or unqualified contributors. The accuracy in parts of the present edition has likewise been questioned, although criticisms have been challenged by Britannica's management.  So from now on, there will no further print edition and it would remain ‘completely digital’

Just before the full Internet boom, sales reportedly reached its peak wen 120,000 sets were sold in the United States in 1990  - even with its high price tag reportedly closer to $ 1500 (roughly Rs.70000 +). Britannica offered its first digital edition in 1981 for LexisNexis users, published the first multi-media CD in 1989 and the first encyclopedia on the Internet in 1994.  The online version - which offers some services for free and charges an annual fee for enhanced content -- attracts an audience of 100 million people worldwide, Britannica said.

A book is more attractive by its cover – the golden bound volumes would ever be a Priced possession of the beholder. But it would always be easier to ‘search online’ rather than pounce through the bound volumes !!  Britannica, as a whole, is not moribund, though: a half a million people pay $70 each year for complete access online.

William Smellie, at the age of 28, was hired by Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell to edit the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar


  1. I am now 62 years old. When I was a young lad of ten, my neighbour had a copy of Arthur Mee's
    Children's Encyclopaedia. How I wanted to have my own copy! But then times have changed. The Standard Literature Co. in Mount Road used to give such books on instalment. Is the company still there?

  2. While I understand the loss of revenue, and the change over because of it...the Loss of the written word is not a good idea...perhaps a limited special edition printed once a you really trust that what is put online is always that truthful? or cannot be change by a good hacker? They are already changing novels that are written using words that some church goers or fearful selfish people dont want others to read...Soon the writings of the old masters will not reflect what they said originally...Mark Twain is already turning in his grave....Knowledge is power people...if its not written down it can be manipulated to easily.....