YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Encyclopedias Gathering Dust as Web Beckons

Internet-savvy students opt for online research, making the once-staple books all but obsolete.

March 21, 2004|May Wong | Associated Press Writer

SAN JOSE — These are lonely days for encyclopedias.

At libraries, the volumes sit ignored for days on end as information-seeking patrons tap busily at nearby computers.

Even in the warmth of a loving home, that set of hard-bound books that once represented the crown tool of a good education gets the cold shoulder.

"Sometimes my mom uses it as a coaster," said high school senior Andy Ng of Daly City.

In the age of the Internet, encyclopedias are gathering dust, and most families with young children don't even consider buying the space-hogging printed sets anymore. Even digital versions struggle for attention.

Michael Gray's home computer came pre-loaded with Microsoft Corp.'s reference software, Encarta, but the seventh-grader from Milpitas has never used it. He prefers doing research online, where information from an array of sources comes quickly and, usually for free.

"I find information really fast," Gray said, smiling proudly. "Within five to 10 minutes, I find a good [Web] site to work from."

Sometimes teachers -- in a nod to the past and to stress traditional encyclopedias' usefulness -- require students to use them as a source for reports.

But with children now often knowing their way around a computer before they know how to read, it's like forcing students to use slide rules when they know calculators can do the job faster.

"The students don't want to touch this stuff anymore," librarian Sandra Kajiwara said at San Jose's Dr. Martin Luther King Library, pointing to the reference shelves near her station. "This could stay here forever and no one would notice."

Indeed, the heyday of the printed encyclopedia -- which presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kerry sold door-to-door as his first job --is long gone.

The thick volumes were the status symbol of upper-class educated households, and sales surged in the 1980s when installment plans made $1,400 reference sets affordable.

But the 1990s brought recession, saddling encyclopedia makers with defaulted loans. At the same time, computers were penetrating libraries and homes. Families with school-aged children weren't thinking about whether to spring for encyclopedias, but rather a computer.

Then the Web exploded, making reference works on CD-ROMs seem antiquated.

"The Internet was really the fifth nail that was driven into the coffin -- not the first," said Joe Esposito, former chief executive of Encyclopaedia Britannica and now an independent consultant for digital media.

Reference providers such as Collier's and Funk & Wagnalls collapsed while others were swallowed by rivals. Britannica, the behemoth first published in 1768, saw the number of print sales drop by 60% from 1990 to 1996, said Jorge Cauz, Britannica's president.

A few years after it ended door-to-door sales in 1996, Britannica bet -- wrongly -- on the then-popular strategy of giving away online content while relying on Internet ad revenue. The company now charges libraries and individual subscribers for complete access to

The shrunken reference powers that survived the shakeout -- namely Britannica, World Book and Grolier, the maker of Encyclopedia Americana now owned by Scholastic Library Publishing -- have retooled to focus more on online products.

Voluminous sets are still printed, but mostly only for institutions.

It's no surprise that the fastest-growing profits are in the online segment.

Once-a-year updates for printed editions mean some information can be stale before the books even get out of the box. Electronic encyclopedias also have more colorful pictures, video and audio clips, and quick links to additional resources.

"Kids can hear and see Martin Luther King deliver his 'I Have a Dream' speech, and there's nothing in a book that can do that," said Cynthia Richey, president of the Assn. for Library Service to Children., which has about 200,000 subscribers and is accessible to more than 30 million people through libraries, makes monthly updates. Microsoft's Encarta does weekly downloadable revisions.

"It's enormously liberating," said Gary Alt, Encarta's editorial director. Encarta "can even make an emergency change" -- as it did last year after the space shuttle Columbia explosion.

Still, challenges lie ahead.

Among CD or DVD versions, Microsoft's $70 Encarta is the best seller, but industrywide sales for encyclopedia software fell 7.3% in 2003 from 2002, according to market researcher the NPD Group.

And while the encyclopedia industry's overall revenue in the United States is growing, sales in 2003 totaled about $300 million -- compared with the peak of $800 million in 1989, Esposito said.

Students all want to use the Internet, librarians say, although younger ones sometimes get lost in the sea of information on the Web.

Sue Krumbein, a middle school librarian in Menlo Park has a rule on Internet research: Students must first complete book-based research to narrow their questions before surfing the Web.

Librarians, the fastest human search engines in the pre-Internet era, believe encyclopedias provide great topical overviews, well-suited for elementary- and middle-school reports. There's also an ongoing debate about the reliability of data found on the Internet.

Many Web sites have homework centers and cater to younger audiences. Popular sites such as BigChalk, Yahooligans!, Searchasaurus, FactMonster and DogPile are endorsed by many educators and libraries.

With so much free online information, including proprietary databases for which libraries pay for the public's use, families like Amy Sahn's say encyclopedias seem unnecessary.

Her son, Zach, 10, will soon have more complicated school assignments, but the Redwood City mother thinks that the Internet will suffice.

"The kids are so computer literate that it would seem almost foreign to them to use a book," she said.

Los Angeles Times Articles