The Upshot

Encyclopaedia Britannica ends its print run

The Upshot

The end of serendipity, as we know it.

Leafing through the world's knowledge, alphabetically, will become am obsolete tradition. The oldest English-language general encyclopedia -- according to, of course, the Encyclopædia Britannica -- will abandon foolscap once and for all.

"For 244 years, the thick volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica have stood on the shelves of homes, libraries, and businesses everywhere, a source of enlightenment as well as comfort to their owners and users around the world," reports its blog. "Today we've announced that we will discontinue the 32-volume printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when our current inventory is gone." That inventory includes 4,000 in its warehouse -- about 8,000 sets have been sold at $1,395 a pop. (Seven million sets have been published in its storied history.)

Digital afterlife

While the move is acknowledged as "momentous," the blog also points out that the Britannica already has a digital presence. Also, those weighty printed sets (the New York Times measures the 32-volume set at 129 pounds) only account for less than 1 percent of the company's sales.

Then again, a Britannica Online subscription costs $70 a year or $1.99 per month for its app. (In honor of its print dissolution, the online service is free for one week.) That hasn't been an easy sell in the days of search engines and Wikipedia. Still, the company plans to polish up its digital offerings and even add "social connections," according to CNN Money.

What distinguishes Britannica from its Wiki-counterparts has been its expertise: Contributors have included the likes of Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie to Bill Clinton and Tony Hawk. What Wiki might lack in quality, it atones for in quantity: The Guardian reports that Wikipedia English brims with 3.9 million articles, while Britannica has 120,000.

Encyclopedic mourning

Wordsmiths twit-mourned this shift in encyclopedic erudition.

"NCTCopyDesk is in mourning. Unbelievable! RT @cnnbrk Encyclopedia Britannica to stop printing. on.cnn.com/x3tZXw." Some reminisced about their childhood education through its tomes: "My family's used set got me through 12+ years of school :( >> Encyclopedia Britannica to stop printing books zite.to/x79v0w

Others lashed out, looking to cast blame for its demise. "Wikipedia and the Internet just killed 244-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica tnw.to/1DeWE by @thatdrew." Another noted, "Blaming 'modern bloody wogs and mau-maus' Encyclopaedia Britannica ends print edition. FT:ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7…"

The shift has also brought out the see-what-happens-when-standards-fail purists: "Encyclopedia Britannica, spelled wrong, is trending around the nation right now."

Perhaps one thing that Britannica lovers can find smug solace: Five hours after news hit about its print end, its Wikipedia entry had not updated. "The Britannica is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print." The point under "Competition," however, still stands: "Although the Britannica is now available both in multimedia form and over the Internet, its preeminence is being challenged by other online encyclopaedias, such as Wikipedia.[citation needed]."

Britannica staff plan to acknowledge the moment with a cake -- shaped like encyclopedias, of course. Here's a glimpse into its hallowed halls, and their look into the future.

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