In 1768, the Enlightenment was in full swing, and the printing press was being employed liberally as a method of disseminating knowledge among the (then still relatively few) literate and learned. Few general-purpose reference works existed (the earliest came only a few years before), however, with much essential knowledge split between many smaller, more specific volumes. On Optics, or On the Use of Leeches, or Travels Among the Savages of the New World, that sort of thing. That year, the Encyclopaedia Britannica printed its first edition: three volumes comprising a compressed but useful near-totality of human knowledge.
It is difficult for us to conceive of, having grown up with reference works, and more difficult still for a new generation raised with the Internet and its promise of instant access to virtually any work or knowledge. So it is likewise strange to attempt to put in context the fact that 2010’s Encyclopaedia Britannica will be the last one printed. Some will stroke their chins, some will wail and tear their hair, some will shout for joy. But most, perhaps most tellingly, won’t care – indeed won’t ever notice.
The passing of any institution as old as this one, even if it isn’t going away completely (they actively maintain a subscription-based reference site), is a moment on which to reflect. Especially when print and knowledge are in such upheaval.
The question of print versus online is different when you’re not talking about cheap paperbacks versus e-books, or news magazines versus blogs. This Encyclopaedia sells for $1395, and at 32 volumes, it would be out of place on any but the most expansive libraries. Only 8000 copies of the 2010 edition were sold; 4000 are being warehoused. Just before the dawn of the web, in 1990, they sold 120,000.
It’s a no-brainer for the company: 99% of their revenue comes from their other businesses. And as companies like Kodak and Polaroid can attest, an iconic product isn’t the same as a successful product.
Is there anything to be said in the print edition’s defense? There are some high-level arguments about the value of keeping hard copies of data, and certainly there are some demographics better served by books than the internet. But as far as an actual product, the encyclopaedia is nearly friendless. A few professors or old-fashioned types may value the sets, but it’s hardly a secret that if your goal is the storage and distribution of valuable knowledge, a bulky, expensive, 32-book set is not the way to go about it.
They’ve built a company that has lasted two and a half centuries on the supposition that “Facts Matter.” When faced with the choice of continuing to make the same product they offered 244 years ago and continuing the mission they started 244 years ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica chose the latter. It’s a choice many companies would be proud to make, but few will ever have that opportunity. It’s not every day someone makes something that lasts a quarter of a millennium.
Update: The last few thousand copies of the encyclopedia are selling like hotcakes.