The End of Print Encyclopedias?
Want to know about the the black widow spider? Or about the Gond tribe from India? Or is it the Bermuda Triangle you want to know about? The answers are now just a click away. But what does that mean to the publishers who print bulky volumes of encyclopedias?
A series of announcements from publishers across the globe in the last few weeks suggests that the long migration to the Internet has picked up pace, and that ahead of other books, magazines and even newspapers, the classic multivolume encyclopedia is well on its way to becoming the first casualty in the end of print.
Jorge Aguilar-Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a private company based in Chicago, said that the print edition was still profitable, but that sales were just 10 percent of what they were in 1990. Customers are mostly schools and libraries.
It was only last month, however, that the publisher of Germany’s foremost multivolume encyclopedia, Brockhaus, took similar action, announcing that in April it would be putting online, free, all 300,000 of its articles, vetted by scholars over 200 years of print editions. (Brockhaus hopes to make money by selling ads on its site.) At the same time, the publishing house said it couldn’t promise that it would ever produce another print edition, something it has done regularly since the encyclopedia appeared in Leipzig in 1808.Publishers in Denmark and France, too, are rethinking the commercial viability of their encyclopedias. A one-volume French encyclopedia, Quid, lost its publisher last month, and may only survive online.
Yet, as encyclopedia publishers struggle, the Internet age has become a golden one for the newer kind of encyclopedia. An ambitious project to catalog online all known species on earth — with the even-more-ambitious title the Encyclopedia of Life — went live last month.
And then there is the behemoth Wikipedia, a project that has no board to vet articles and is created by thousands of volunteers, with more than two million articles in English and an additional five million in a babel of other languages.
So will this be the end for encyclopedias?
Mr. Aguilar-Cauz of Britannica is counting on that sort of nostalgic allure to keep at least some encyclopedias on bookshelves and not just hard drives. He envisioned the print volumes living on as a niche, luxury item, with high-quality paper and glossy photographs — similar to the way some audiophiles still swear by vinyl LPs and turntables. “What you need people to understand,” he said, “is that it is a luxury experience. You want to be able to produce a lot of joy, a paper joy.”