After 244 years in print, the Britannica says farewell
The Britannica‘s gone. And I say, “good riddance!”
If ever there was a poster child for the changes being wrought by the web specifically, and digital technologies generally, the Britannica was it. Its final edition, published in 2010, includes 32 volumes and sells for around $1,400. It will of course, never, ever be updated — although it must be said, it always took a long, long time for any of the previous editions to be updated, so never doesn’t seem much of a stretch.
Meanwhile it took only a couple of hours after the announcement was made at Britannica‘s Chicago HQ for word of the antiquated info-porkster’s demise to be reported and duly documented on Wikipedia. If the shoe had been on the other technological/editorial foot, we would have learned about the free, web-based “universal encyclopedia”‘s end in the pages of Britannica by, oh, say around 2020.
Some things cease to exist simply because they’re, well, stupid!
There have already been plenty of commentaries on the end of this venerable publication. The hippest amongst them point out (rightly, I think) that the Britannica‘s model — that of providing one voice (often, but certainly not always considered a leading expert) explaining The Truth, just doesn’t cut it. Knowledge, fed by research, vetted by peer review and the merciless crucible of the Real World, constantly changes. Making the approach taken by Wikipedia far better suited to keeping those who simply must know, properly up to speed at all time.
I would add another angle. For me, Britannica always represented a sort of upper middle class snootiness — if you didn’t have a set, it said something not very flattering about you and your family’s socio-economic position.
The company’s business model was ruthless, a classic example of aggressive, guilt-inducing, bottom-feeding capitalism of the worst kind. I’m old enough to remember waves of merciless door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen sweeping regularly through our neighborhood, barging in and shaming countless working class families into shelling out what was for them a not-so-small fortune (“no problem, simply avail yourselves of our easy, monthly payment plan!”), desperate that their children have every chance to carve out a better life for themselves.
Of course, for most of us whose families did manage to acquire this Holy Grail of home reference works, once obtained, we scarcely cracked a cover, outside the occasional furtive search for articles on heady topics like Sexual Intercourse, the Kinsey Report, and Hitler’s Bunker.
In a world where it costs almost as much to send a book to someone as the book’s cover price, it’s little surprise the Britannica has gone where cowboys who smoke went before.
Adios, Marlboro Man. Vaya con Dios, Britannica
But let’s remember amidst all the inevitable nostalgia for “a simpler, less troubled time” (tell that to folks still alive who lived through Auschwitz or Pol Pot, or get on the ol’ sat phone and have a quick chat between mortar shell bursts and machine gun fire with anyone still alive in Homs), that Britannica never actually democratized knowledge. It merely provided those who owned it with the facade, the appearance they knew something those who didn’t have it didn’t know. It was a smug, dust-gathering reminder on the sagging bookshelf of one’s inherent superiority, a several-hundred-pound trophy that said to all who gazed upon its long row of gold-embossed spines, “these people have got it.” Literally.
Those who didn’t, or those who sported cheaper, less prestigious alternatives (mine was, sad to say, a World Book household), didn’t. Losers.
So after almost two-and-a-half centuries, no more print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Good riddance. The Britannica is dead. Love live Wikipedia!