"Utility ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind."
So wrote William Smellie in the preface of the first edition (1768-1771) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now, after 244 years, "the 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica print set will be discontinued," according to an announcement on Britannica's web site. The 2010 set (which costs US$ 1 395) will be the final print edition before the Britannica goes completely digital.
According to a story at the Washington Post,
"The top year for the printed encyclopedia was 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold ... That number fell to 40,000 just six years later in 1996... The company started exploring digital publishing in the 1970s. The first CD-ROM edition was published in 1989 and a version went online in 1994."
Over 100 million people use the online version of the Britannica, according to a company spokesperson.
Starting Tuesday, the Post says, "the company plans to mark the end of the print version by making the contents of its web site available free for one week."
I bought my copy of the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a young engineer in 1980 for about $750 or so. While I don't use it much anymore, I still get an inexplicable feeling of reassurance whenever I glance over at my bookcase and see it there. That feeling hasn't happened yet with any of the digital devices I have ever owned (although I must admit I still have fond feelings when thinking of my old Mac Plus and Motorola V300, which are stashed away in a closet).
Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.