When you mention the Encyclopaedia Britannica to people over 30 they will likely recall memories of pouring through one of its volumes to finish all kinds of grade school projects. The reference books that have been a cornerstone of living rooms and libraries for 244 years announced yesterday it will cease printing and will live on entirely in its online and digital ventures.
While it is a bittersweet moment for some who will miss the books, I think few would argue that the first place they head when they have a quick question or some research to do is the Internet.
Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. clearly understands the competitive advantage the Internet has over reference volumes and notes in a blog posted on the Encyclopaedia Britannica website:
"In spite of our long history with print, I would like to point out that no single medium, neither books nor bits, is at the core of our mission. That mission is to be a reliable, up-to-date, and scholarly source of knowledge and learning for the general public, and I believe that 200 years from now, this mission will continue to be vital and relevant and that the people of the future who are committed to it will use the best available technology to fulfill it."
In fact, the company has been quietly preparing for this day for years. In 1984 they completed the first digital encyclopedia in 1981 for LexisNexis and in 1994 they launched the Britannica.com website.
By being able to focus completely on their core website and mobile apps, the company will be able to become more competitive. Whether it is their digital products or e-learning curriculum, they are able to update these products quickly and can actually hold more information than the printed volumes.
In fact, this additional information — such as video, scans of original documents and articles — enhances the learning experience Britannica can provide.
While the speed and volume of information Britannica.com is great, it shares these attributes with the rest of the reference products on the web — notably Wikipedia, its free crowdsourced competitor. But, Cauz is very clear in the point of differentiation Britannica brings:
We cannot deal with every single cartoon character, we cannot deal with every love life of every celebrity," he says. "But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter. Britannica won't be able to be as large, but it will always be factually correct."
While much of the Britannica.com website is available for free, the daily updated and enhanced version is available for individual subscription for $70. Schools can subscribe for discounted memberships and specialized curriculum.
So, when you consider the fact the printed editions — which sold at $1,395 a set — were only 1 percent of the company's revenue, it seems like the only thing we'll really be missing is the memory of the printed volumes we had as kids.
I'm sure they have pictures of them on Britannica.com anyway.