Going Digital: Encyclopedia Britannica’s New Publishing Model

It was announced this week that Encyclopedia Britannica, the oldest English-language encyclopedia, will discontinue its print edition and embrace digital publishing. The company’s digital publishing program includes an online encyclopedia for subscribers, an iPad app, e-books, and websites. No strangers to digital publishing, Britannica has espoused the digital shift since the 1980s, publishing its first online encyclopedia in 1981 and the first multimedia encyclopedia in 1994.

But the 32-volume print edition is a staple in many homes. Growing up, there were several encyclopedias in my home, proudly lining full shelves in bookshelves. Books, especially reference materials, have a solid presence, one that beckons us to turn their pages. The book as an object of beauty is the one argument opposing digital publishing that continues to sway me.

In this case, however, I really cannot believe that 32 heavy volumes are better than an online encyclopedia!

Dale Hoiberg, the editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, gives an excellent summary of the advantages to producing a digital product in a recent blog post. He says “the encyclopedia and electronic publishing make a perfect match.” And I couldn’t argree more with his assessment.

  • Expanded coverage: no more space limitations allows for greater supplemental material.
  • Ongoing revision and updating: here’s the major advantage over the print edition. While a family might be able to afford to buy one edition every ten to twenty years, the online encyclopedia will always provide the latest information. Today, the Joseph Kony article is featured as one recently updated, now including reference to the social-media campaign by Invisible Children. Wow, that’s current!
  • Search function far surpasses the index of print edition. While I am wholly in awe of people who index, a custom search with a computer can provide greater complexity and accuracy for searchers.
  • Multimedia, such as pictures and videos, are not restricted by print budgets. These materials can greatly enhance words describing a topic and youth today are very familiar with the visual.

As publishing drifts toward digital products, I couldn’t think of a better channel for encyclopedias today. The online reference tool allows the reference material to be up-to-date and accessible, two key goals for any encyclopedic material.