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The Last Word

The nondescript building of the Indian headquarters of the Chicago-based Encyclopedia Britannica Inc in the dusty and not so posh bylanes of Greater Kailash- 1 in New Delhi,which could have gone unnoticed otherwise,is bound to invite more than a mere glance now.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Published: March 22, 2012 1:37 am

Succumbing to the digital revolution that has left the household name of Encyclopedia Britannica obsolete,the complete digitisation of the 244-year-old reference source is the end of an era

The nondescript building of the Indian headquarters of the Chicago-based Encyclopedia Britannica Inc in the dusty and not so posh bylanes of Greater Kailash- 1 in New Delhi,which could have gone unnoticed otherwise,is bound to invite more than a mere glance now. There will be nostalgia,sadness and even cynicism,blaming online revolution for the demise of the printed edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. After the 244-year-old international household name decided to stop printing and give in to complete digitisation last week,people are still grappling with the news and rushing to the stores to get the last few copies of the historical set.

“If something historical is erased,people react. They have called and enquired,and families have woken up to buy more sets than ever before. In the US,in just three days,25 per cent of the stock was sold out,” says K M Thomas,managing director,Encyclopedia Britannica India,who in the middle of all the development,is suddenly a busy man. He firmly adds that “it’s not about gimmicky sales but a firm decision”.

Somewhere around the turn of 20th century,the towers of Encyclopedia Britannica — the paper and ink one — were one of the most significant sections in public and private libraries in India and all over the world. This continued until digital media gave us all of Encyclopedia’s information at a click,and now,a mere touch. Tel Aviv-based Leah Mansoor,the senior vice-president,international business,Encyclopedia Britannica Inc,further informs that the direct sales of the books,as observed by the 12-year-old office,have been stable in India but in the West,they have declined every year.

Founded in Edinburgh,Scotland,in the 18th century,with first publication between 1768-71,the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica’s first edition was followed by 14 more with William Smellie as its first editor. Over the years,the various volumes have resulted in ambitious and extensive education and reference material that boasts of contributors,from initial ones like historian and economist James Mill,British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor,theoretical physicist Albert Einstein,to more recent ones such as tennis players like Chris Evert,mountaineer Tenzing Norgay,former US President Bill Clinton and South African activist Desmond Tutu.

Even though the first digital version came out in 1981,the first multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM came out only in 1989,and the first on internet in 1994. The decision to stop printing,says Mansoor,comes after the need to evolve with the times. “We understand people’s sadness,but we knew this would eventually happen. Our employees around the world took part in this decision,” she says.

Thomas,who does not own a single set of Encyclopedia Britannica,looks at the neat collection in his office with pride and some nostalgia. “When the whole thing sinks in,you will see things in perspective. There’s a change in the market and you have to adapt and accept it,” he concludes.

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