On March 13, 2012, no bugler played taps for Encyclopaedia Britannica’s final print edition. But expressions of condolences outnumbered celebratory comments by 5 to 1 at the official Britannica.com blog where “Change: It’s Really Okay,” told the story of the passing of a printed reference work that is almost a quarter of a millennium old. The terse eulogy commemorated the 32 volumes noting they were “a source of enlightenment as well as a comfort to their owners and users around the world.” It continued, “But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.”
Other official company postings included Britannica president Jorge Cauz discussing the publication’s history and future, and editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg emphasizing the advantages of digitization (e.g., quick revision, links to external content, and use of multimedia—all taken for granted by anyone using the web). Communications director Tom Panelas paralled these announcements with lighter fare in a “Fun Facts” post demonstrating that, over the years, the Encyclopaedia had been at the root of several ironic and/or quirky happenings. He cited a falling set of the Encyclopaedia cracking Keith Richards’ ribs in 1998, and comedian Mike Myers wearing his dad’s Britannica “Salesman of the Year” ring as a wedding band. Panelas’ post had attracted no comments. It would appear there is little allowance for levity when the topic is the printed word and the digitization of information.
Views From the Field
The decision to cut the print version is directly related to Britannica’s plan to meet users’ expectations and preferences. This simply means that instead of reading books printed on paper, people want to get their content via the internet, CD-ROMs, DVDs, smartphones, and tablets—so that’s the way Britannica.com will deliver it. Recent publication of the results of a 2011 Pearson Foundation survey called “Students and Tablets” proves that assumptions regarding reading via electronic devices are valid: most college age students (sample size approximately 1,400) prefer digital format over print for both textbook and leisure reading.
I asked Gerry McKiernan, associate professor of science & technology/librarian at Iowa State University and Notre Dame University’s digital projects librarian Eric Lease Morgan (Hesburgh Libraries) the same question: Does Britannica’s announcement have any significant implications for publishing or libraries?
McKiernan, who voraciously read the Encyclopaedia when he was a teenager said, “Unless a print product bears a QR code [Quick Response barcode with a capacity to contain all sorts of information, and readable by smartphones], it doesn’t offer the type of interaction that has become dominant and pervasive in our day-to-day places/spaces.”
Morgan, an early contributor of etexts to the web and an innovator in digital research enhancement (see his concordancing experiment at http://infomotions.com/sandbox/concordance/) answered with more circumspection. “I think it is too soon to articulate a trend. Tablet computers—as redefined by Apple and various Google Droid implementations—are relatively new. Only a few years old. These devices are still very novel. Small. Fun to use. Connected to the ‘Net. Provide easy ways to ‘consume’ data, information, news, email, websites, images, music, movies, etc. Few people use them to do anything but the most rudimentary evaluation of content. Besides, there is a lot of hype surrounding these things. I seriously wonder how well a person will be able to do traditional ‘close reading’ on an iPad-like device. Yes, the devices support annotation, but in a manner designed by the manufacturer, not necessarily in the manner of the user. Furthermore, the content for these devices is increasingly licensed. When accessing content on tablets, PCs, and smartphones is wed to a contract as well as proprietary hardware/software combinations, I wonder how long-term and renewable evaluation [will] be able to take place in such an environment.”
Other Pitfalls of Digitization
Digitization has potential benefits, but some serious issues have surfaced. End-users (including me) have noted the digital Encyclopaedia’s “clunky,” “unattractive,” and “user-unfriendly” interface. (Coincidentally, a quick web search for “Britannica and interface” found a March 9, 2012 LinkedIn listing for “Senior User Experience Designer.”)
Other problems have been documented with both high profile and lesser digital equivalency scanning projects. One Google Books example, which I like to call the “rubber gloves obscuring the text snafu” shows that hastily scanned pages are unreadable. In some library catalogs, electronic Fodor’s Guides link to plain text. Fodor’s Big Island of Hawaii (print version) contains 26 maps and 120 photos. Its electronic counterpart has no graphics, no maps, no table of contents, nor any other orienting context for the content. This casual “good enough for my purposes” perspective may or may not become the standard that ultimately defines digitization best practices. But, everyone possibly affected by the paper-to-electronic transition should exercise due diligence in studying potential problems.
Digital Divide Be Damned! Full Speed Ahead
While most posts at the Britannica blogs were of the “so sad,” “heartbreaking,” or “change is necessary” theme, one individual wrote with the aplomb of a seasoned focus group participant. Although a user of EB, this poster made a few observations leading one to consider whether Britannica.com is less than optimally positioned in the digital reference source market. If the less reliable Wikipedia, with its familiar interface is easier to use, and is often the first hit in a Google search, how will Britannica promote its website to realistically compete?
Though only anecdotal, some librarians have noticed that people rarely use the print EB. Similarly, statistics for electronic access to the subscription Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition can be relatively low compared to other databases. Its history and authority aside, questions remain concerning the sustainability of a digital-only, fee-based Britannica.com vis a vis its free “nemesis” Wikipedia. (According to Alexa.com’s traffic rankings, Britannica.com is #6,100 globally [#2,800 in the U.S.]. Wikipedia is #6 both globally and in the U.S.). But after all, check out Library Journal’s “Digital Shift” column. It contains a graphic showing fragments of information issuing from an open book. The recent decision at Britannica shouldn’t shock anyone. It’s an obvious step in, as McKiernan puts it, “… an era of dynamic media.”