The Scholarly Kitchen has a really interesting article about the ending of Britannica’s print edition.  There’s a lot more in the article and I suggest you read the whole thing:

To those who believe that the Britannica is dead because it’s no longer publishing in print, I’d like to offer a small but significant correction: you’re right that it’s dead, but you’re wrong about the reason. The Britannica isn’t a victim of the obsolescence of print; it’s a victim of the ineffectiveness of portals.

Let’s dispense with the format issue quickly. I don’t imagine I’ll attract too many outraged comments by pointing out that the idea of publishing reference sources in print format is ridiculous. Print is wonderful for extended linear reading, but it’s a terrible platform for research and an even worse one for distribution. If you want to help people find discrete pieces of information, burying them in a large document that can only be searched by reading the whole thing (or by recourse to a crude index) is a terrible way to go about it. And if you want to distribute information to a large number of people, attaching it to a heavy physical object (let alone 32 such objects) is no way to do it. The days of the printed encyclopedia are over, long over, and thank heaven for that.

But the obsolescence of print as a research medium is not what has killed the Britannica. The problem Britannica faces is the one faced by all information portals, regardless of format or platform — they tend to offer too much of the wrong kind of value, and too little of the right kind.

What value proposition does Britannica offer? We think of an encyclopedia as comprehensive — offering information on any topic you can think of. (Think about what we mean when we describe a source as “encyclopedic.”) But in reality, what an encyclopedia offers is the opposite of comprehensiveness. It offers a distillation, or, more accurately, a selection: an apparently large, but in reality tiny collection of the information that is out there in the world. Even during the Gutenberg Era, the Britannica’s claim to cover “the breadth of human knowledge” was overblown; in the era of networked digital information, that claim borders on the hilarious. To begin one’s research with an encyclopedia is to start with a narrow and constricted strategy, not a broad one. This same problem applies to virtually any information portal.


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