Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Writing is on the Screen

After over 200 years of publication, according to the Associated Press, Encyclopaedia Britannica announced it would stop publishing print editions of its 32-volume encyclopedia.  Instead, the company will be focusing on its online encyclopedia.

Encyclopedia Britannica was first published in Scotland in 1768.  When the current stock runs out, the print version will no longer be available for sale.  The top year for the printed encyclopedia was 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold, president Jose Cauz said.  Six years later, that number fell to 40,000. The company started exploring digital publishing in the 1970s. The first CD-ROM edition was published in 1989 and a version went online in 1994.  The final hardcover encyclopedia set is available for sale at Britannica's website for $1,395.

The company plans to mark the end of the print version by making the contents of its website available free for one week, starting Tuesday.  Online versions of the encyclopedia now serve more than 100 million people around the world and are available on mobile devices, the company said. The encyclopedia has become increasingly social as well, Cauz said, because users can send comments to editors.

“A printed encyclopedia is obsolete the minute that you print it,” Cauz said.  “Whereas our online edition is updated continuously.”

Lynne Kobayashi of the Language, Literature & History section of the Hawaii State Library notes some people will always prefer using print sources, but that readers are becoming attuned to online searching because of a proliferation of electronic publishing.

“There are many advantages to online searching, chief among them the ability to search within the text,” Kobayashi said. “The major disadvantage is the need for a computer or devices with access to the Internet.”

Kobayashi said her decision to use traditional or online resources depends on the question she wants answered.

“Sometimes subject knowledge and familiarity with standard resources may get faster results than keying in a search and sifting through results,” she said. “If the search is broader, searching across several online sources may yield more options.”

As a former associate editor of directories, there are advantages to both electronic and print publications.  Our directories were even more time-critical than Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which is science and history-oriented.  The directories took a full year to bring to publication and the directories were, indeed, obsolete, by the time they came out, particularly the directory that dealt with broadcasting.  As a broadcasting major, I warned my editor that radio and television stations experience extreme turnover rates, since moving from station to station was often the only way broadcasting professionals could advance.  My unwelcome advice was to consider putting the directories on CD and even online, where the information could be more easily changed.

That was in the early 1990s.  The Internet was a merely a new fad at the time.  Computers didn’t have the platforms for easy access; you had to type in so many commands before you could find the information.

For researchers looking for current information, say, who is the current news producer at Fox News, online information is the preferable method.  That having been said, there are dangers to electronic information:  the reliability of the power source, the expense of the equipment, and the reliability of the information.  Hackers can all too easily alter facts, as users of Wikipedia have discovered.

Publishers can hardly be blamed for balking at the cost of publishing a 32-volume encyclopedia for a diminishing audience and diminishing returns.  The cost devolves onto the consumer, instead in the form of an electronic device.  Yet there is such a danger in this transformation to the freedom of information.  Information does change quickly, as we found to our frustration on the broadcasting book.  Nevertheless, history needs to retained in a more permanent, reliable form than the electronic form.

We need to protect both forms, the former for the convenience of a modern public, and the latter for the sake of the truth.  Electronic information can be withheld from an ignorant public, but so can books, especially when a major publisher finds the books are too expensive to publish.  With only the electronic information available, information can disappear with click of a mouse.  In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, certain key information, initially published by the New York Daily, via the Associated Press, disappeared within an hour.

Mistakes can be readily corrected, as we bloggers have been found, but politically correcting information can be a mistake fatal to freedom.


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