Encyclopedia Britannica Closes Final Page

What’s 244 years old, weighs 129 pounds, and is about to die? As the headline and image suggest, it’s the printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

There have already been responses pointing the blame at Wikipedia, though it seems to be more a case of the Internet as a whole being the culprit. After all, when used as designed, Wikipedia is simply an index of the facts and claims made across the entire web and other sources.

Encyclopedia Britannica’s president told the New York Times that the company’s online edition, which will remain active, is simply a better tool than the printed form because it can be updated more frequently, covers more material, and includes multimedia content.

The supposed rivalry between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia was fuelled by a 2005 study by Nature magazine into science-related entries that found that while Wikipedia was more likely to have “factual errors, omissions or misleading statements” (by a 162-123 margin among the entries under examination), it only had the same number of serious errors as the printed encyclopedia, namely four. Encyclopedia Britannica took issue with the research, which prompted Nature to make two responses disputing the objections.

One major flaw — which could have distorted the results either way — was that the tests involved taking a “snapshot” page of Wikipedia for an entry. The nature of open editing means this might not represent the contents that are available the majority of the time, for example if a page had been vandalized or poorly edited just before the test and corrected soon after.

The Times notes that it’s the sheer economics that has put paid to the printed Britannica Encyclopedia. In 1990 it sold 120,000 copies in the US alone. The 2010 edition has so far only sold two-thirds of its 12,000 print run. In fact the printed encyclopedia now brings in less than one percent of company revenue, with sales of educational materials now the main moneyspinner.

Ironically, the departure of the printed edition has proven that you can’t always trust what you read online. The business editor of the Peoria Journal Star covered the news by noting the decline was inevitable given that the last door-to-door salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica, Scott Lohman, retired in 2007 after 40 years on the job. Unfortunately he appears to have missed the fact that his source material for this note is a clearly-labeled satire site.

(Image credit, ironically enough: Wikimedia Commons)

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