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Rule Britannica

Friday, March 16, 2012

Encyclopædia Britannica has decided to stop printing the paper version—a move that's been in the works for over two decades.

Hold on to your hat, for I’m going to tell you something you will probably find amazing. You may even disbelieve it. Millions do.

The full content of the Encyclopædia Britannica became available online—I mean, on that system of tubes we know as the Interweb—in 1994. That’s right—18 long years ago. You were perhaps just a lad or a lassie then. (Given their Scottish heritage, that’s how Britannica folks talk. Like, “Is that a sgian dubh in your sporran, or are you just glad to see me?”)

And by the way, did you notice how, in the word “Encyclopædia,” the first “a” and the second “e” are kind of stuck together? That’s called a ligature, and it’s been how the name has been spelled since it was first published in Edinburgh in 1768. And since the early 20th century, it’s how the name of the company that publishes it has been spelled, too. Not that you would ever learn that from most of the folks who have taken upon themselves the task of informing you, the reading and thoughtful public, of what you need to know.

While all people have questions to which they require answers, only a subset of those people have the additional requirement that the answers be correct.

Anyway, you may have heard that the company has decided to stop printing the paper encyclopedia. A one-day wonder as news items go. This decision has been in the cards since, oh, 1991, when the company first started working to create a way to deliver the content of the encyclopedia online. Those were the days before the World Wide Web, so there was no way to deliver illustrations or alphabetic characters with diacritics or such things as mathematical or chemical formulas. In its first instantiation, the online Britannica was a lot of green ASCII text on black background, with holes in it where stuff was missing.

But technology developed quickly, and Britannica hung in there. One thing that was realized pretty early was that, while the full set of 32 volumes, averaging about a thousand pages each, looked pretty damned impressive on a bookshelf, out there in what was not yet called cyberspace it didn’t amount to all that much. The editors thought, “Boy, we have all the space in the world now, or even more. We could make EB really, really big!” And then they thought, “Wait! How will we maintain quality if we just start churning out articles on everything we can think of?”

If you are a science fiction fan, you’ve no doubt read stories that turn on the idea that at every point of decision, every moment where some pregnant matter could go this way or that way, the universe bifurcates. One universe proceeds on the basis of A, the other on the basis of B. This was such a moment.

As it turns out, in a real and free-market universe, when a Britannica chooses B, someone else will try A.

For many years now, it has been the very height of unfashionableness to suggest that there are real and consequential differences among people, but it was at this moment that it had to be admitted that, while all people have questions to which they require answers, only a subset of those people have the additional requirement that the answers be correct. From the days of limited literacy up through those when a set of Britannica was priced in the four figures, this made little difference to the business model. But in a new era when, as it quickly became apparent, access would become near-universal and, if not free, then orders of magnitude less expensive, something quite profound was about to happen to the encyclopedia business. And lo! it did.

In its first instantiation, the online Britannica was a lot of green ASCII text on black background, with holes in it where stuff was missing.

Not to say that this insight was shared by all of Britannica’s management. Nor was it welcomed by any. The buggy whip makers had faced just such a passage a hundred years before, when the first Duryea automobile motored over the bridge from Springfield into Westfield, Massachusetts.

There are many complications to this story—sale of the company, change of management, false starts—that are of little interest to anyone except those who were there. Suffice it to say that the story is not at an end, so any conclusion drawn now is premature. Will the Britannica survive online? No one can say. That’s the thing about that answers vs. correct answers thing: No one has ever come up with usable statistics as to the relative sizes of the two groups. All we know now is that there will be no more leather-bound Britannicas. There is, has been, and will be an online version, which costs money. That’s a consequence of the B choice.

The name and copyrights of Britannica once belonged to Sears, Roebuck & Co. Another story too long to relate and not all that interesting anyway. It’s worth mentioning only to show that, as someone once wrote in my high school yearbook, “the vicissitudes of life are very lugubrious.” (Our English IV teacher was a stickler for vocabulary enrichment.) In most reports by journalists, Britannica is up against it. Wikipedia is free, enormously popular, let’s people play in it, and has articles on everything you can think of. For example, there’s an article on “Barney Rubble,” showing how the wisdom of crowds is ever ready to respond to the real needs of a modern civilization. Barney is identified as the “deuteragonist” of the television cartoon show “The Flintstones.” “Deuteragonist,” I take it, is WiseCrowdese for “next door neighbor.” So if you’re curious about that, there it is -- the A choice. Is the article correct? Dunno. But that’s OK, because no one has ever really needed to know the truth about Barney.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “The Problem with Bambi-nomics,” “Bringing Mr. Smith to Washington,” and “Et in Arcade Ego.” Nick Schulz asks “Is it a Good Idea to Wash Foreign Pirates’ Mouths Out With SOPA?” Leon Aron describes “Nyetizdat: How the Internet Is Building Civil Society in Russia.” David Shaywitz contributes “Getting Better: Online Communities Elevate Voice of the Patient.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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