Saturday, March 31, 2012

Last Thoughts on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771 – 2012.

Earlier this month, I happened to catch an obituary of sorts that largely slipped by the general public: After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was going to stop its publication. Perhaps it was a reflection of the Britannica as an anachronism that the mainstream press paid this little mind. But I found this intriguing, and worth considering.

It is strange to think of the concept of an encyclopedia as novel, but in 1771, the title page of the first three-volume edition announced its purpose: “Encyclopaedia Britannica; OR, A DICTIONARY OF ARTS and SCIENCES, COMPILED UPON A NEW PLAN. In WHICH The different SCIENCES and ARTS are digested into distinct treaties or systems; AND The various TECHNICAL TERMS, &c., are explained as they occur in the order of the Alphabet.”

Cue the trumpets.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica quickly became the center of its field; George Washington owned a set. By the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, it was in its fourth edition at 20 volumes; by the time the Statue of Liberty went up, it was in its historic ninth edition at 24 volumes, which marked the peak of its scholarly sophistication; by the time the Titanic sunk, it was in its eleventh edition, at 28 volumes, which was the first time the volumes were published largely simultaneously (as opposed to serially); by the time Franklin Roosevelt said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” it was in its fourteenth edition at 23 volumes, in which the editors tried to simplify and edit the language for a greater (read: American) audience. This edition also saw the beginning of “continual revision” to ensure that it would never go out-of-date.

And by the time of the Watergate scandal, The Encyclopaedia Britannica was in its fifteenth edition, which was now published as a 12-volume Micropaedia of short articles and a 17-volume Macropaedia of long ones, depending on whether the reader wanted an overview or an in-depth article. It was still publishing in this model by 2010, the date of what would be its final print edition. It was 32 volumes and 129 pounds at the time of death, with a price-tag of $1395. But with only 8,000 copies of the 2010 edition sold, and an additional 4,000 sitting in a warehouse, the Encyclopaedia Britannica died of old age, neglect, and disuse.

It’s easy to see why – ever since Aristole set out to collect all of human knowledge into one set of writing, there’s been a human compulsion to gather all knowledge possible in one place for reference. Knowledge is power, and, not coincidentally, the apple of Man’s fall. To truly be able to gather it all for mass consumption would be both the Holy Ark of the Covenant and Pandora’s Box.

Until a few weeks ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the oldest continual holdout of this romantic notion to gather all information in one place; tellingly, it was when the series transferred from the Old World to the New World at the turn of the 20th Century that the articles got shorter and things began to get cut. Although it would technically reach its peak sale in 1990 (120,000 sets in the United States), it would quickly fall victim to the onslaught of the digital age. And then, as we all know, being able to use a computer allows you to have all of the human knowledge at your fingertips, at least in theory.

It is truly the end of an era, when the big and bulky bounded volume gives way to the tiny and weightless computer article. Of course, Encyclopaedia Britannica pitches that they are staying modern and effective by transferring their work to an online edition, to which one can subscribe for $70 a year.

It probably would bring things full-circle to now use the new online Encyclopaedia Britannica to research the old print Encyclopaedia Britannica, only I wouldn’t know.

I got all of my information for this article from Wikipedia for free.

1 comment:

  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica had the chance to be a real competitor to Wikipedia. In 2000 was launched which provided free access to Encyclopaedia Britannica's database. High traffic volumes and poor internal management resulted in Britannica withdrawing the free access and returning to a subscription business model. The Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica clearly outlines the financial problems that the company has been having in recent years. Time will tell if Encyclopaedia Britannica will be around much longer.

    Over the next few years we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in an open source, Wikipedia-dominated environment.