Before there was the Internet with all of its web pages, before there was Google.com, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica. An imposing set of bound volumes designed to “cover the breadth of human knowledge” to the “educated layperson,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s pages contained the answers to questions written by the leading scholars of the day, (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011), (Auchter, 1999). Expensive and authoritative, the set of thick books have occupied a place of prominence on the bookshelves of many homes and in most libraries, public and private, across the country for many decades. While the digital version and its related publications are still available to serve different formats, the 2010 edition of the printed version of the familiar encyclopedia collection will be the last to roll off the printing presses, (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011).
As a youth services librarian working in a small neighborhood library branch, I found the Encyclopaedia Britannica, print edition, to be a valuable starting point for many research homework assignments. Progressing through the Reference Interview, it was quickly obvious that the student, or the parent, did not know anything about the homework topic at hand and had no clue where to look for the information needed to complete the homework assignment. Even though digital resources were available, the Encyclopedia Britannica turned out to be such a useful research tool because it gave an overall big picture of the topic at hand. Students were able to find key concepts, words and basic facts in one place in order to form a better idea of how they would approach their topic. Once they had formed a general idea about their topic and had decided how they wanted to approach it, the student or parent would then be able to more clearly articulate what he/she needed to complete the assignment using other resources from online databases or from the stacks.
Why is the Encyclopaedia Britannica print edition now obsolete?
- High replacement cost: Each year, libraries have to keep their reference materials as up-to-date as possible. This replacement process is very costly so they usually purchase the latest print edition for their reference shelves in each branch. The 2010 print edition costs $1350 while the digital version costs $30 for a DVD and $70 for the Encyclopaedia Britannica online service.
- Large amount of shelf space: The 2010 printed edition consists of thirty-two volumes and takes up a lot of shelf space while the digital version is a part of the library system’s online digital system which may be accessed from any multi-use computer terminal in the building.
- Access: In theory, library card holder access to the online database version is only limited by the amount of Internet-connected computer terminals within each library branch. Larger regional branches have multiple computer terminals with access to digital resources. Smaller branches have a limited amount of computer terminals due to budget and/or space limitations. Library card holders can also access the library’s online version of the encyclopedia by logging into their online databases through the library’s web page. Online subscribers to the online version of the encyclopedia can also access information via iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, (Panelas, 2012), (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011).
- “’Circle of Learning’”: Mortimer Adler, who was Britannica’s director of planning, stated that there was a “body of essential information.” Despite their best efforts, the Encyclopaedia Britannica editors could not produce a print version of the encyclopedia that allowed for the average user to make cross-connections between the thousands of information articles and snippets of related information like a computer software program is capable of doing, (Auchter, D., 1999).
- Keeping the content current: With the printed version of the encyclopedia, information content can only be as current as the last date of print. Even though supplemental updates were regularly mailed to customers, it is much easier and less costly to update a digital version. Also, the digital version, Britannica Online Premium, allows the necessary platform to include richer multimedia content such as streaming video, images, audio files, and interactives, (Panelas, 2012).
Auchter, D. (1999). The evolution of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: from the Macropaedia to Britannica Online. Reference Services Review 29(3), 291-299. Retrieved from http://proxygsu-cob1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.cobbcat.org/docview/200566048?accountid=10190
Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011). Encyclopaedia Britannica Store [web page]. Retrieved from http://store.britannica.com/products/ecm001en0
Panelas, T. (March 14, 2012). Encyclopaedia Britannica to end print edition, go completely digital [web]. Retrieved from http://www.corporate.eb.com/?p=508