During the week, Charlie Hilton wrote about the shift from Print to Digital for the Encyclopædia Britannica after the company officially announced that the 2012 print Edition would be the last ever. I have never bought or owned the print encyclopedia, and yet the seemingly innocuous news was saddening. It’s because the Britannica holds a warm, nostalgic seat in my memory; I always felt in awe of those gorgeously bound complete sets that were displayed at the libraries of my school and university. They symbolised this great and historic tradition of enlightened learning, and while this symbolism can technically live on through digital media, there is something undeniably more tangible to the symbolism of a physical copy.
And yet, this news has long been a foregone conclusion, given the absurdity of owning a hardcover 32-volume library costing around $1,400, and that information becomes ever more outdated from the date its published and bought. Charlie explained how:
“the shift to digital is not to be seen as a drop in demand for the encyclopaedia, or for knowledge for that matter, but more as a means to connect to more people at once.”
Yet the infographic below, courtesy of Statista, suggests that demand for Britannica has been on a downwards slope for a long time as sales have plummeted tremendously in the previous two decades. Even given the shift to print, the statistics suggest that the company with a rich 244 year history is struggling to keep it’s death throes at bay.
This battle for survival is even clearer when viewed against the behemoth that is Wikipedia. The Internet’s free and open encyclopaedia and sixth highest ranked website in the world benefits from almost 200 times the number of contributors and 60 times the number of articles. The vast majority of people searching information will and do choose a free Wikipedia over the $70 cost of an annual subscription for Britannica.
The upside for Britannica is that 85% of its revenue comes from curriculum products, suggesting that at educational institutions the value and prestige placed upon the brand still sets it apart as a worthwhile necessity. In the teething stages of Wikipedia, which was only founded less than a decade ago, its slightly haphazard and user-generated infrastructure led to inaccuracies that damaged the perceived reliability of the content. That said, as early as 2005, the journal ‘Nature‘ conducted a single-blind study comparing the accuracy of a sample of articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. The sample included 42 articles on scientific topics, including biographies of well-known scientists. The articles were compared for accuracy by anonymous academic reviewers. Based on their review, the average Wikipedia article contained four errors or omissions; the average Britannica article, three. Only four serious errors were found in Wikipedia, and four in Britannica. The study concluded:
“Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries”, although Wikipedia’s articles were often “poorly structured”. – 2005 Nature Study
But five years on, Wikipedia is extremely stringent and instances of inaccuracy are even rarer and more quickly rectified, and the information database has carved out a reputation of greater reliability. As this trend continues – and the $60 million in user contributions bodes well for them – I imagine the long term survival of a costly Britannica will look less likely, even in a digital world.
There hasn’t been a drop in the “demand for knowledge”; rather, there is a definite shift in the way people obtain their knowledge, and that is a shift towards an open source model propped up by a gifting economy.
How many other industries might go the same way? And could you justify paying for Britannica’s digital offerings?