• Welcome to BookAndReader!

    We LOVE books and hope you'll join us in sharing your favorites and experiences along with your love of reading with our community. Registering for our site is free and easy, just CLICK HERE!

    Already a member and forgot your password? Click here.

Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias


Administrator and Stuntman
Staff member

Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias
Published: March 16, 2008

It has never been easier to read up on a favorite topic, whether it’s an obscure philosophy, a tiny insect or an overexposed pop star. Just don’t count on being able to thumb through the printed pages of an encyclopedia to do it.

A series of announcements from publishers across the globe in the last few weeks suggests that the long migration to the Internet has picked up pace, and that ahead of other books, magazines and even newspapers, the classic multivolume encyclopedia is well on its way to becoming the first casualty in the end of print.

Back in the 1990s, Encyclopaedia Britannica led the pack in coming to terms with the idea that the public no longer viewed ownership of the multivolume compendium of information as a ticket to be punched on the way to the upper middle class — or at least as the oracle of first resort for copying a book report.

Sales of Britannica’s 32 volumes peaked in 1990, but in the next six years, they dropped 60 percent, and the company moved quickly to reinvent itself online. In 1996, Britannica eliminated its legendary staff of 1,000 door-to-door salesmen, already down from a high of 2,000 in the 1970s, in the face of competition from Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia for home computers.

Jorge Aguilar-Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a private company based in Chicago, said that the print edition was still profitable, but that sales were just 10 percent of what they were in 1990. Customers are mostly schools and libraries.

It was only last month, however, that the publisher of Germany’s foremost multivolume encyclopedia, Brockhaus, took similar action, announcing that in April it would be putting online, free, all 300,000 of its articles, vetted by scholars over 200 years of print editions. (Brockhaus hopes to make money by selling ads on its site.) At the same time, the publishing house said it couldn’t promise that it would ever produce another print edition, something it has done regularly since the encyclopedia appeared in Leipzig in 1808.

Publishers in Denmark and France, too, are rethinking the commercial viability of their encyclopedias. A one-volume French encyclopedia, Quid, lost its publisher last month, and may only survive online. The largest publisher in Denmark, Gyldendal, has decided that the subscription plan for its online encyclopedia is misguided (it stopped a print edition in 2006). It plans to come up with another way to support itself.

“There is some kind of sadness,” said Nicole Weiffen-Aumann, a spokeswoman for Brockhaus, “but on the other side, many people are happy, looking forward to our new product — both things you can find in our company.” She added: “There are many people that say, ‘When I was very young I bought my first encyclopedia from Brockhaus, and there will be no next edition, I can’t believe it.’ ”

The Encyclopedia Americana still has good sales in print volumes, said Greg Worrell, president of Scholastic Classroom and Library Group, but the company is focusing on its online outlets. He said it was still determining a print plan, but added, “the likelihood is there will not be the 2009 multivolume print version.”

To scholars, the ready access to updated information online is a net gain for the public. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t mourn the passing of a household icon — a set of knowledge-packed books on their own reserved shelves that even parents had to defer to.

“I remember in my own childhood in the 1940s, early ’50s, I and my parents would sit around the table and look at the encyclopedia together,” said Larry Hickman, director of a center at Southern Illinois University devoted to the education pioneer John Dewey. “In the old days, the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the World Book encyclopedia was regarded as authoritative,” he recalled, laughing as he agreed, “That’s why you would copy it for your book report.”

But Mr. Hickman said that parents and children can have the same discussions “seated in front of the computer, the electronic hearth, as I like to call it.” And he said that losing a set of books considered infallible was actually a good thing for developing critical thinking.

Yet, as encyclopedia publishers struggle, the Internet age has become a golden one for the newer kind of encyclopedia.

An ambitious project to catalog online all known species on earth — with the even-more-ambitious title the Encyclopedia of Life — went live last month. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a project that began online in 1995 and has never been in print and never will be, is chugging along with nearly 1,000 entries that are vetted by an academic board of more that 100 scholars for a total of 10 million words.

And then there is the behemoth Wikipedia, a project that has no board to vet articles and is created by thousands of volunteers, with more than two million articles in English and an additional five million in a babel of other languages.

Wikipedia is regularly among the top 10 most visited sites on the Internet throughout the world — maybe in part because there’s a lot more there than meets the needs of the average term paper. The superabundance of less-than-prized information on the site has led to a phenomenon called “wiki-groaning,” which involves comparing the length of seemingly disparate articles to humorous effect. Lightsaber Combat beats out Modern Warfare, for example, and John Locke, the character from the TV show “Lost,” edges out the other John Locke, whoever he was.

Encyclopedia publishers, while taking swipes at Wikipedia’s unreliability since it can be edited by anyone, have clearly adopted some of its lessons. They are incorporating more photographs and suggestions from readers to improve online content, and they are committed to updating material as facts change.

Britannica says it updates an article every 20 minutes. Even the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia will make changes with relative speed. When a law was passed on voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, “our entry was updated within a couple of weeks, at the latest,” said Edward N. Zalta, a senior research scholar at Stanford and principal editor of the online encyclopedia. “It may have been a day or two — we don’t do it as quickly as Wikipedia, but in a timely way.”

In essence, the Internet is justifying the hubris of early compilers like Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, said Edward O. Wilson, the expert on insects at Harvard who spearheaded the Encyclopedia of Life and serves as honorary chairman. “There were so few species to deal with, only in the thousands,” he said. “He and his disciples thought they could do the rest of the flora and fauna of the world. Boy, were they wrong.”

In the intervening centuries, Professor Wilson said, science was taken over by specialists. But by allowing specialists to pool their knowledge on a Web site, he said, the Encyclopedia of Life will be able to come close to the dream of a compendium of all the known species in the world.

“Once we get all the information in one place, think of the impact this will have — available to anybody, anywhere, anytime,” he said.

Asked about his own experience with encyclopedias, Professor Wilson said, “I grew up in Alabama — we didn’t have things like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in our home.” What he did have were field guides. “All the field guides — for snakes, butterflies, turtles. Back in the 40s, I had my butterfly nets, and I was right up to date through my guides,” Professor Wilson said.

He added: “There are nerds that say we will have something the size of a field guide, and punch in something. Maybe I am hopelessly old fashioned, but a kid with a knapsack, and a Boy Scout or Girl Scout manual, printed, a field guide on snakes or butterflies, printed, is the best combination in the world.”

Mr. Aguilar-Cauz of Britannica is counting on that sort of nostalgic allure to keep at least some encyclopedias on bookshelves and not just hard drives. He envisioned the print volumes living on as a niche, luxury item, with high-quality paper and glossy photographs — similar to the way some audiophiles still swear by vinyl LPs and turntables. “What you need people to understand,” he said, “is that it is a luxury experience. You want to be able to produce a lot of joy, a paper joy.”


Well-Known Member
We have the 1986 edition of Collier's Encyclopedia in the basement gathering dust. The last time anyone used them was several months ago when the kids made a huge tent in the family room. We never liked them anyway; should have held out for a World Book set..which we now have on a cd around here somewhere.


Active Member
To be honest, it's surprising that print encyclopedias have lasted this long. First the CD/DVD encyclopedias and now the online encyclopedias - just so much easier to search and are updated frequently.


Administrator and Stuntman
Staff member
Now, does this mean that full encyclopedia sets are more desirable now or worthless?


Give the print editions about 50 years to go completely out of style. Then collectors may want them for novelty factor. Definitely a sign of tides wafting a different way. I can't imagine owning, much less using, a set of bulky omnious encyclopedias. I want to search, I want to cross-search, and I want links. Wow am I whiny or what? I also want easily updated information. So there.


Well-Known Member
I was sent to training seminar on how to use an online learning system known as APEX. Our trainer informed us that there are school districts who have moved entirely to the online learning format. In other words, no textbooks-nada, zero. Literature is taught by the kids clicking on a hyperlink that leads them to the Project Gutenberg site, which has major western texts uploaded. Administrators also love it as the online programs are cheaper than ordering $70.00 a piece textbooks that have to be replaced every five years. I've always heard about this being the wave of the future, I was really taken aback to hear that it's going on around where I live. Just think, we'll all be cranky old codgers lecturing the young whipper-snappers:

"When I was a boy, you had to read in books....in hardback....frontwards and backwards......with no bookmark."



Well-Known Member
I won't miss print encyclopedias. They quickly become obsolete and take up a lot of space. If I need to see a print edition, I can read them in the local library.


New Member
Its surprising they lasted this long. Encyclopedias in general is not that useful, but at least wikipedia usually provides good links to their source material so you can get some better information.

beer good

Well-Known Member
So as of yesterday, I'm down to one print encyclopaedia - the old 1920s edition I'm keeping because it looks good and is actually fun reading, but the newer 25-volume one published in the mid-90s is gone.

First, I tried to sell it. One quick look around the "Books for sale" ads revealed that this was a lost cause; there were hundreds for sale in my city alone, the most expensive ones selling (or rather not selling) for about $40. That's about the same as each volume originally cost. The used book shops laughed at me.

Then, I tried giving it away for free, asking only that anyone who wanted it would come and collect it him/herself. It's 25 volumes on very high-grade paper, you need a car to move the damn things. No takers. I asked the Salvation Army if they wanted it and they groaned and said they already had encyclopaedias coming out of their ears and couldn't sell the damn things.

I ended up lugging it down to the trash room in my building and leaving it there. It breaks my heart, and I'm still hoping someone throwing out their banana peels and whatnot will go "Oooo, free books!" and give it a new home.

But I have wikipedia in my phone and I haven't even opened an encyclopaedia in years. Except, again, the old 1920s one which under "Hitler, Adolf" says "After the coup in Munich, he hasn't played any significant part in German politics." I'm never letting that one go.


Administrator and Stuntman
Staff member







Administrator and Stuntman
Staff member

That being said, $70/year for the electronic version is a steal considering that the printed set goes for $700+.


Remember Grolier's encycolpedia? It came out on CD back in the 90's. I just tried their website, it requires a log in just to view it. I thought about registering with the username "piss off" but I think I'll just get ready for bed.

What are your encyclopedia memories? Back in the 7th grade, circa 1977, I remember getting the school's encyclopedia and reading up on Roald Amundsen's trip to Antarctica. Just by sheer coincidence, the teacher read it at about the same time I did and gave an impromptu oral quiz to the class, and with the material fresh in my mind I knew all the answers and I really shined that day. Got beat up pretty bad on the playground at recess, but it was worth it none the less.

One day I grabbed the "M" Brittanica and was just browsing through it, hmmm probably about 1987 or so I guess, and came across the "mutiliation" article. It listed bodybuilding as a type of self mutilation. With no community of know-it-alls to discuss and refute, I guess that sort of thing could easily pass muster and get published.

I love me some Wikipedia.


Administrator and Stuntman
Staff member
My encyclopedic memories are using them for reports and research papers. And now that I think about it, I don't know if I have actually used a print encyclopedia since 12th grade.

beer good

Well-Known Member
Brave New World: Encyclopaedia Britannica Stop The Presses

Britannica today only derives some 1% of it revenues from the printed encyclopaedia rendition and its online version, which was first published in 1994, represents only 15% of Britannica's revenue. Britannica now generates some 84% of sales from education materials and is planning to relaunch it encyclopaedia site to add more social connections and interactivity.

Is this a last remnant of publishing's past, or an early indicator of publishing's future? You don't sell bunches of paper anymore, you sell information.

Penny Alley

New Member
The moment you drive your brand-new car off the lot, it's out-of-date and depreciates in value. It's the same with encyclopedias from the moment they're printed. Information is constantly changing, being corrected and expanded upon. I do not keep encyclopedias in my arsenal of reference books, and haven't for some years. When you need accuracy, you need the Internet (with a heavy dose of skepticism) and your local bookstore and/or library. I believe Britannica does plan to remain an online presence, which is certainly going to be cheaper and easier to update when needed.