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Encyclopaedia Britannica ends print run

March 14, 2012

About 30% of Britannica's content is available at no cost through search engines. Hoping to drive more traffic to its site, the full database is now accessible for a one-week free trial. Although the online encyclopedia is not the primary focus of Britannica, Cauz is looking to monetize increased site visits with more online ad revenue while converting casual users into subscribers.

Although some may bemoan the loss of the print version, Britannica's very survival is an accomplishment following a digital revolution that spelled the end for more than a few reference publishers. Among the casualties were Funk and Wagnalls and Collier's Encyclopedia, both of which ceased publication in the late '90s. Encarta itself was discontinued in 2009 as Wikipedia and other online reference sources rendered the onetime category killer all but obsolete.

One of the few print encyclopedias left standing is World Book, a 95-year-old Chicago-based company that is still selling its 22-volume 2012 edition for $1,077 on its website.

The economic advantages to digitizing reference works are overwhelming, but they may come with a cost.

"There's always something gained and lost when something becomes digitized," said Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland who specializes in digital humanities and electronic publishing.

Kirschenbaum points out that the serendipitous discoveries that come from flipping through a book may be lost online, for example.

"There is no such thing as simply a kind of seamless, transparent translation from one medium to another," Kirschenbaum said. "There's always going to be a role for the physical form that the medium takes in terms of how the thing is used, and how it's received and understood."

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