Anyone who knows me is well aware of how I feel about books. I spend a significant portion of my life buying them, reading them, carting them to and from the library and stacking them on any horizontal surface within reach. At last count, I own over 200 of my own (blame dollar-a-bag day at the library’s monthly book sale). It’s safe to say that I believe in the power of the printed word.
I wasn’t particularly surprised; who could be, nowadays? The full encyclopedia contains 32 books and costs over $1,000 a set. As much as I would love to own such books (the last encyclopedia, heir to 250 years of academic tradition!), I’m neither independently wealthy nor delusional. I can’t buy a set, and goodness knows no one is going to buy one for me.
To be perfectly honest, I probably haven’t used a physical encyclopedia since elementary school. Remember those children’s World Book sets that made a picture when the books were all lined up? Back in my day, we used those to do research projects on squirrels and the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Then we got on our desktops and used Windows 98 to save our typed reports to floppy disks.
All humor aside, I can’t blame the publishers for their decision. Technology has truly created a whole new world of information, and even recreated the way we access that information. E-readers have lessened people’s desire for physical books, which are more expensive and take up more room than electronic editions. Wikipedia has lured virtually every Web-searching information-seeker to its uncitable but oh-so-informative lair, offering easy and comprehensive overviews that used to be the exclusive province of “real” encyclopedias. Twitter and Facebook abandon the form entirely, allowing people to start chronicling events for themselves.
The Encyclopedia Britannica has actually done an excellent job of adapting to these trends, and not only by abandoning their print version. They currently offer a variety of DVDs, software, educational materials and an online version — one that reflects content updates much faster than a print version could ever hope to do.
The no-print route makes sense, but I wonder if it isn’t just one link in a lengthening chain of print’s losses to digital media. Newspapers are moving more toward online content; email and social networking have long since defeated letter writing. Even some textbooks now appear with online access codes or are offered only through publishers’ online portals.
I like all this technology, and I fully acknowledge the fact that none of it is going anywhere. But I hope that real books never totally disappear — and that if no one will buy me the last encyclopedia, someone will buy me the very first one.