Out of print

Raise a toast to the new,only-online ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’

Written by The Indian Express | Published:March 16, 2012 12:07 am

Raise a toast to the new,only online ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’

Those weighty tomes that once seemed to hold within them the entire breadth of human knowledge will be no more — Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease publication after 244 years to concentrate solely on its online product,a sign of the times,if there ever was one. Computers and the Web have changed the way we think about information and the digitisation of knowledge has yielded a world in which anything can be looked up instantly; no more wading through thousands of pages of text in tiny font sizes. One need simply google the obscure (or not) subject,and voila! Hundreds of results will pop up to provide deeper — or shallow,true or false,take your pick — insight into the topic,probably led by Wikipedia. An internet connection is all you need to know almost everything about just about anything. Or so it seems.

It wasn’t always so easy,though,to figure out exactly who,say,it was that flew the plane that dropped the bomb over Nagasaki. The Britannica was the authoritative source for such information,a compendium of what we ought to know,written by the people who ought to know about it. Each edition of the Britannica (it was updated every 25 years or so) was a chronicle of what we thought we knew at that moment in time: a cultural artefact. With the constant update and deletion that digitisation makes possible,it may be harder to glimpse the snapshot of what was important at particular points in our history.

But such nostalgia is misplaced. Britannica has been struggling to find a place for itself in the brave new digital world. The writing has been on the wall for the books since 1993 when Microsoft launched Encarta (an encyclopaedia on CD!). The Britannica’s sales dropped virtually overnight and it is no surprise that it has had to adapt to remain relevant. Now,perhaps,Britannica can match the immediacy of Wikipedia and still retain its authority — the best of both worlds.

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