Encyclopedia Britannica ends print editions

When I returned to Sri Lanka after competing my doctorate, I splurged some of our meager savings on my dream of owning a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, although it was really expensive. I used to enjoy looking things up and skimming through the pages. Unfortunately the turmoil in Sri Lanka in 1983 caused us to leave abruptly and leave all our stuff behind, so after enjoying the books for just a little over a year, I gave it away to friends with deep regret.

So I felt a twinge of sadness when I read that 2012 is going to be last hard copy edition, which you can buy for $1,395.

I suppose it has to be so. A printed encyclopedia in an information age seems like a dinosaur.


  1. jamessweet says

    Holy crap, I forgot how expensive those things are.

    I’m in the generation where those were just beginning to fade into uselessness. I remember using them as late as junior high. By the time I got to college, it was clear that a print encyclopedia was utterly useless, but at that time there was no Wikipedia so it was presumed that CD-ROM encyclopedias would prevail.

    Now even the idea of something like Encarta seems odd to me… If you want general knowledge, the tag team of Google and Wikipedia is more than sufficient (if you know how to vet your sources, that is, so I suppose there is still some value in CD-ROM encyclopedias), and if you want more detailed knowledge than you can obtain from the interwubz you’re going to have to crack open domain-specific books, i.e. an encyclopedia won’t help you anyway.

    I imagine my sons will grow up not even really knowing there was ever such a thing as a print encyclopedia, and if they learn it as a historical factoid it will seem utterly senseless to them.

    On a similar note, I realize awhile ago that we are very near to a point where kids will only recognize the noise of a dial tone as a thing you hear in old movies. Weird to think about…

  2. unbound says

    Yeah…the Beloit mindset list (http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/) is always worth checking to see how much the current generation of college students sees the world differently than I do.

    I still have my 1991 set of Encyclopedia Britannica. They haven’t been opened in many years now. Perhaps they will be worth a lot of money soon for a collector…

  3. left0ver1under says

    This is not a good trend. Printed encyclopaedias from reputable publishers are becoming fewer in number. That means fewer sources to quote from or use for research. Disreputable and unreliable “sources” like wikipedia have somehow become “acceptable”, like the lie that gets repeated often enough until enough people believe it and no one questions it.

    CD ROMs don’t last forever, and “online” encyclopaedias aren’t always an option. If I had the money and space, I’d gladly buy one of the last editions and keep it.

  4. scenario says

    There is a problem with who do you trust online. What sites are reliable and what are useless. Encyclopedia Britannica is reliable. However a new set every 2 years is useless for a lot of topics and at over $1000 a set, who can afford it?

    It would be nice to have a free Encyclopedia Britannica online with a way to buy more in depth articles at a reasonable price, like 5 cents a page or so. Go for low price high volume rather than high price low volume. A lot of the science websites charge $30 for a 5 page paper.

  5. Desert Son, OM says

    A printed encyclopedia in an information age seems like a dinosaur.

    Except that, as you know, much of the world isn’t in the digital age, despite increasing growth of information technology.

    It’s easy to see it as anachronism in the United States (even its most rural or under-developed urban areas retain close proximity to all kinds of advanced telecommunications), but much of the rest of the world remains a place where a printed encyclopedia continues to have relevance.

    My own bias, of course, is not only that I live in the highly technologically prevalent U.S. with strong electronic frontier infrastructure, but also that for all my tele-connectedness (which I hope I do appreciate sufficiently), I retain a deep love of the physicality of books, from the weight in hand to the whisper of pages turned to the smell of the paper.

    For those of us who grew up with paper encyclopedias, it certainly does feel like a kind of passing of an age, to be sure.

    Still learning,


  6. Mano Singham says

    I have a landline too! In fact my cell phone is a dinosaur, a non-smart, hand-me-down from my daughter that I hardly ever use.

  7. Frank says

    Given the number of hours I spent with my World Book Encyclopedia as a kid, I can only imagine how much geekier I would be if Wikipedia were available back then. When Encarta came out, I thought it was the greatest thing ever!

    I don’t currently own an encyclopedia, but I do have a print edition of the OED, and I think I will always enjoy pulling out one of its stately volumes to read the history of a word that I have just come across.

    I still hear the dial tone every day on the land line at my office, and I think it will live on for a while longer. Maybe once a year, I make a call and get a busy signal–and am surprised that it still exists. To kids growing up today, the busy signal must be as alien as the party lines that my parents grew up with are to me.

  8. mnb0 says

    The part of the world that isn’t in the digital age is not very likely to pay more than 1000 USD for the EB either. There are people in that very part in the world who must make do three years or so with the amount of money necessary for the EB.

  9. mnb0 says

    You are still more modern than me. I don’t even own one and can’t learn how to work with it. Not that I ever have tried very hard.

  10. Steve LaBonne says

    The real loss is that even an accurate online encyclopedia can’t be browsed randomly for pleasure, as I spent many hours doing with EB in my boyhood.

  11. jamessweet says

    I do hear the dial tone on my office phone still, but most of the company has been switched over to VoIP phones with no dial tone. (For our building, they did something weird where we kept our own phones, but there’s some kind of VoIP back-end. I don’t really understand what or why… but in any case, there’s still a dial tone)

    But it is definitely disappearing, and fast. I brought this idea up with the drummer in my band the other day. I said, “When’s the last time you heard a dial tone that wasn’t in a movie?” He said, “But there are still landlines!” I said, “Do you have one?” “Well, no, of course not.” “And when’s the last time you head a dial tone that wasn’t in a movie?” “Well…. I’m not sure, actually!”

  12. jamessweet says

    Says you! I’ve spent hours browsing Wikipedia. (As to the accuracy issue, it is not difficult to develop a “smell” for which Wikipedia articles are likely to be accurate. And if there’s doubt, you can always check the citations.)

  13. Dunc says

    A printed encyclopedia in an information age seems like a dinosaur.

    A gorgeous, durable, resilient, good-smelling dinosaur…

  14. left0ver1under says

    I bet you have no life, sitting in front of a computer 24/7.

    Unlike you, my computer is not always on, nor do I want to carry it room to room. It’s far easier and faster to read a book from a shelf than booting up a computer to look at one thing.

    And there are no computers in my classroom where I teach. Are you offering to send me the money to buy a few laptops to replace my almanacs and printed encyclopaedias, atlases and dictionaries I let my students use? And are you offering to pay for the repair of the computers when manhandled – or childhandled, as the case may be? If not, why did you bother replying?

    Reading when it’s more convenient than google does not make me a one of Ludd’s mooks. It makes me one who lugs books.

  15. left0ver1under says

    In my first post that you’re quoting, I asked about multiple sources, not just reputable sources.

    Even if you have a reputable and reliable source, one usually isn’t enough. Books don’t always carry the same information, and you have to cull it from several volumes. It’s better to have several items in your bibliography than one. You can say more when you have more material to work from.

  16. Desert Son, OM says

    The part of the world that isn’t in the digital age is not very likely to pay more than 1000 USD for the EB either.

    Not even as a collective purchase? A government that buys them for a school, library, or ministry? A social organization that pools resources in order to buy something that will, in turn, be used as a pooled resource?

    Even if such locations don’t singly have the resources to purchase such a product, such a product being independent of larger infrastructure might still be a viable donation to such an area, but not if it’s not available anymore.

    By the same token, a telecommunications infrastructure might also be a viable donation to such an area, but I have a feeling such might cost more than 1,000 U.S. dollars, too.

    Still learning,


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