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For nearly 250 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica has been a household name. Once the encyclopedia of record, chances are your family had an Encyclopaedia Britannica set sitting on the bookshelf, or that you've picked up a heavy volume at school or the library.

Yesterday, however, Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that it's going all digital and will no longer be a print publisher.

The announcement on the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog reads in part:

Today we’ve announced that we will discontinue the 32-volume printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when our current inventory is gone.
 
A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.
 
For one thing, the encyclopedia will live on—in bigger, more numerous, and more vibrant digital forms. And just as important, we the publishers are poised, in the digital era, to serve knowledge and learning in new ways that go way beyond reference works. In fact, we already do.

In another post, Encyclopaedia Britannica's president, Jorge Cauz, writes:

I understand that for some the end of the Britannica print set may be perceived as an unwelcomed goodbye to a dear, reliable, and trustworthy friend that brought them the joy of discovery in the quest for knowledge. I would like to take this opportunity to share with them a different perspective, one shared by all of us at Encyclopaedia Britannica and by the more than 100 million students and knowledge seekers who have access to www.britannica.com, our educational sites, or our apps. By concentrating our efforts on our digital properties, we can continuously update our content and further expand the number of topics and the depth with which they are treated without the space constraints of the print set. In fact, today our digital database is much larger than what we can fit in the print set. And it is up to date because we can revise it within minutes anytime we need to, and we do it many times each day.

Critics would argue that Encyclopaedia Britannica remained invested in its print edition for far too long and let digital upstarts (namely Wikipedia) leave it in the dust. Why didn't Encyclopaedia Britannica read the writing on the wall and go all-in on digital sooner?, they ask.

It's a fair question, but for better or worse, Encyclopaedia Britannica is making its big transition now.

Can it succeed? Only time will tell. The publisher is hoping that the things that made its product a staple before the advent of the internet -- quality, accuracy, reliability, expert input -- can bring it success in the digital era too.

On that note, despite the many challenges it will face, the company has a decent foundation on which to start. As The New York Times notes, some 500,000 subscribers are already paying $70 annually to access Britannica's online content, generating a higher percentage (15%) of the company's revenue than print (1%). If Encyclopaedia Britannica's greater investment in digital can be translated to more subscriptions and sales of curriculum products to schools and academic institutions, it might not have such a bad future after all.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 March, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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