When I read today – on an e-reader, no less, during my daily double fix of Kindle plus cappuccino – that the Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print, I felt a twinge of sadness. Or rather more something like alarm.
I mean, if something that’s been around for 244 years can just go up “poof” into thin air, isn’t that a matter of grave concern? 2010 will be the last year the print version of Britannica in all its 32 volumes was released, meaning from here on out, all progress will only be recorded online. Because it’s so much more efficient and user-friendly. There are so many reasons why it makes sense to keep this type of information purely online, and not in print.
And yet. The internet seems so fleeting. So intangible. Nothing to hold on to, nothing to unearth centuries from now, if the internet somehow also went up into thin air. Which just a big gigantic power outage would accomplish, right? What would be left of us and our knowledge to those coming behind us? Will it be assumed that civilization stopped in 2010 and some sort of dark age was entered because no record will be available from that time onwards?
As a writer, this thought is deeply unsettling to me. I grew up with books, I love books, and I think books are one of man’s greatest achievements.
And still I’m to blame, just as much as everyone else, for Britannica’s demise. When is the last time I opened a dictionary, rather than just typing a search term into my computer? When was there ever a time I was actually willing to dish out a ton of money for something I could probably find out otherwise?
I’m a big believer in Wikipedia, but today’s news prompted me to pay a visit to Encyclopedia Britannica’s website. It’s too late for the print version, but perhaps the company has a chance of survival if people are using their site. There is a ton of free information there, and of course you can trust it’s very well researched. I was riveted by a long essay on the life of Albert Einstein, whose birthday is today and was celebrated at our kids’ school in conjunction with Pi Day. It’s actually a very cool site with topics such as “this day in history,” a world atlas with country statistics, a bazillion biographies, and more. Even the $70 annual subscription fee doesn’t sound like a bad deal if it’s something the whole family can use. It would for sure get teachers off our back who forbid or at least discourage the use of Wikipedia.
Goodbye, Britannica, and farewell! You will be missed, if more in thought than in reality.