Change–The Encyclopedia Britannica Editors Say “It’s Okay”

If you were saving some of your budget to purchase the next print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I have some bad news for you. Yesterday the editors announced that after 244 years of publication, they are going to stop printing bound volumes and instead will focus on digital editions. This decision is not altogether unexpected, given that most reference sources are going digital, but it remains somewhat surprising to those of us who are used to the 30+ volume set gathering dust on the ready reference shelf.

I found Encyclopedia Britannica’s blog post on this announcement very interesting. I was expecting something nostalgic, mournful, or even bitter. Instead, with the title of “Change: It’s Okay. Really,” it sounds as if they’re ready to move on. The Britannica Editors write:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

Unlike the blog post, the comments below the post are more melancholic. For example, one person says, “It’s a sad, sad day. I need no internet, no electrical outlet, and no batteries to read print.”

I vividly remember using the Encyclopedia Britannica in the children’s section of my public library in order to complete various homework assignments from elementary through high school. These are good memories, but will I miss the hardbound monolith? About as much as I miss the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m serious—Buffy was a historical data point (at least in my own evolution) and this amazing show as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica helped me survive high school.  And now I believe that the time has come for us to let go.

At a recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative meeting, one of the presenters asked the audience if anyone had used the Encyclopedia Britannica within the past 12 months. Only one woman raised her hand and she explained that she used it to show a child how we used to look up information without computers or the Internet. This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica will continue to live on: as a symbol of how we used to gather and find information.

Poignantly, about 30 minutes after reading a news article about this announcement, I witnessed a pair of students pull one volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf. Now, this is literally the first time I have ever seen a students use this resource in my library since I arrived here a year and a half ago. I couldn’t help but wonder—why didn’t they just Google the information they were looking for? Or use one of our online encyclopedias? My guess is either their professor asked them to consult to it or perhaps they learned how to use the print volumes at their public library just as I did. Nevertheless, it made me smile.

Please feel free to share your memories of the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Buffy for that matter) in the comments below.

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