Britannica Vanishes Into The Ether

After 244 years, Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer be available in print. You can pick up your copy for a cool $1395. Britannica says it has nothing to do with Wikipedia and Google. Well…

Still, print encyclopedias haven’t been a major part of Britannica’s sales for a long, long time now. It makes me laugh, actually, because my first job in Cincinnati was selling encyclopedias. Here I was, fresh off the bus (Actually, I drove an old Postal Jeep down, but work with me here.) and without the job I originally moved to town to take. So I took a job with Britannica.

Thank God I had a patient girlfriend. I sold 1 encyclopedia in 2 months before moving to the somewhat more profitable world of telemarketing (where I got fired and got a real job that I should have taken when I moved to town.) There was one objection I could not overcome.

“But encyclopedias are moving to CD ROM now.”

We were to tell prospective customers “That technology will not be viable for at least five years.”

Uh-huh. The Macintosh had been around for seven years at that point. Windows 3.0 had just come out. There were multimedia encyclopedias for the Mac. Microsoft had brought out early versions of Encarta. Sure, it was jerky and tinny, but guess what. We’d never seen anything like it before. Gee whiz! Wow! All this cool stuff in the post-MTV era!

I couldn’t overcome that objection because I didn’t believe it. Three years later, I bought my first computer, which shipped with a CD ROM version of Groliers Encyclopedia. And it was fairly impressive. I had one of the first Pentium computers. So much for that technology being “years off.”

Since then, Britannica has sold subscriptions to its digital editions, which, like Wikipedia, can be updated instantly. Unlike Wikipedia, some bored 14-year-old can’t insert phrases like “Seth is gay and does it with his mom” in the middle of the article on the Etruscan War. Wikipedia has wikicops. Britannica has editors.

I will kind of miss print encyclopedias. My grandmother kept a 1969 set of World Books, and my aunt sold World Book for many years. I spent hours going through articles about astronomy and history. Of course, a lot of new astronomy facts and more history came about after 1969, which brings up the print encyclopedia’s Achilles heel: It’s obsolete before it’s even printed. Even newspapers still have some relevance when they come off the press.

But am I going to plunk down $1400 for a piece of nostalgia?

For that kind of cash, I could buy a tablet computer for less than a third that and get so much more.