The encyclopedia is more than 2000 years old and is here to stay, but those glossy hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica volumes that have been the basis of many an elementary school report will soon be a thing of the past: After 244 years of publication, the company announced on March 13, 2012 that it will go completely digital and cease print publication . Similar to the demise of print newspaper, the end of print copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica is the inevitable result of the expansion of digital technology and the emergence of such popular crowd-sourced websites as Wikipedia.
What does this say about the state of education, for the world of knowledge? The Encyclopedia Britannica, the twentieth century version of the Diderot’s great Enlightenment encyclopedia project, was a mainstay of American culture for decades. It opened up a world of knowledge that was inaccessible to those without access to closely guarded university libraries: public libraries could offer the reference books for free, and families could even purchase their own sets through the company’s legendary door-to-door salesmen, often a single volume at a time as part of an installment plan. As James S. O’Rourke, IV noted on CNN.com, “in mid-20th century America, a set of Britannicas on the shelf was a status symbol: a sign that the family had money, taste, some pretense to intellect, or at least a very strong desire to be seen that way.” It was such a stalwart it could even weather the possible stigma of hiring disgraced intellect Charles van Doren, who was caught up in the great quiz show scandal of the 1950s and testified before Congress that he took answers from producers before competing.
However, the demise of the print version indicates an even greater accessibility. The last print volumes were published in 2010, but they cost nearly $1400 a set. They also accounted for 1% of the company’s sales, the smallest part of an education publishing empire that includes many other educational materials, including Webster’s Dictionary, DVDs, and software resources. The online version is free, and the Apple app for Encyclopedia Britannica brings the entire repository of Britannica knowledge to iPads and Apple handheld devices. To Britannica president Jorge Cauz, this is the real story. He said,
Everyone will want to call this the end of an era, and I understand that. But there’s no sad moment for us. I think outsiders are more nostalgic about the books than I am. The print set is an icon. But it’s an icon that doesn’t do justice to how much we’ve changed over the years.
However, many concerned educators argue that the end of the print version of the Encyclopedia will actually hurt students. Citing the “digital divide” between those that can afford computers and internet access and those who cannot, librarian Stephanie Rosalia points out that public schools and libraries do not often have computers with enough memory or power to enable high-speed internet access, and that “incarcerated youth and other populations, who are not allowed access to the Internet, need reliable print resources for general knowledge and background information.” She also argues that,
While Britannica’s concerns understandably are for the bottom line as well as the continued excellence of the product, I will sorely miss the print version. There is no substitute for browsing to ignite curiosity. Eliminating print removes the possibility for that moment of serendipity when a student stumbles upon an unexpected subject while thumbing through the pages.
One could argue that the same curiosity is sparked by internet browsing, but there is one crucial difference: it is often impossible to verify many things on the internet. The Encyclopedia Britannica, both its print and online versions, are written by trained experts who have often been, themselves, primary researchers in their fields and can not only verify the information they present, but authenticate the sources on which the information is based.
A good argument about the dangers of internet information comes from legendary publisher and newspaper editor Sir Harold Evans in his Foreword to Phyllis Goldstein’s A Convenient Hatred: The History of Anti-Semitism (Facing History and Ourselves, 2012). When considering the replacement of print newspapers with internet news sources, he wrote,
Instead of reexamining the freedoms of the press, I found my mind obsessed by the paradox that a new freedom had brought with it new corruptions. The Internet has connected the world as never before, but much of what travels at the speed of light is now half-truth masquerading as knowingness, and vast amounts of disinformation and misinformation.
As proof of this frightening aspect of internet information, Evans provides the example of the proliferation of unsubstantiated theories spreading throughout the Internet that argue that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by Israeli masterminds determined to discredit Muslims around the world. Not one single aspect of this insidious “Jewish conspiracy” theory has been substantiated by anything resembling evidence but it has nonetheless been taken up as truth by large parts of the Arab world, simply because it is online.
This is but one example of why the availability of reliable and verifiable resources is necessary not only to students but to the public in general. For over two centuries, the Encyclopedia Britannica was one of the major purveyors of such knowledge. Its move to a strictly online version can only help raise the quality of online resources. The job now is to make sure that such resources are available to more people—and more students—by continuing to work towards closing the digital divide in the same way that encyclopedias have traditionally democratized access to knowledge.