The Extinction of the Encyclopedia

The other day I was walking through my neighborhood with my son when I passed by a stoop with an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica sitting on it.  It had just rained the night before, so the full 32 volume set was just laying there, rain-drenched and pathetic looking.  Although it may sound strange, I felt kind of sorry and sad for this set of unused reference materials.  With the advent of the internet, encyclopedias have, in essence, become extinct.  Whomever decided to discard these gems of likely outdated information probably uses the internet for all of their research purposes, and therefore does not need 32 books taking up room on their already bloated New York City sized apartment shelves.

I started reminiscing about my own set of encyclopedias that adorned the shelves of my parents home, back in the 80s.  I once did a report on the African elephant and used that set almost exclusively for my research.  I would just look for the “E” book, and bam!  I had access to pages of information about the origin, habits, and lifestyle of this large creature.  If I needed more information, I would head to the local library, look up some books on elephants in the card catalog, and then read about them to my heart’s content.

But today, one needs to simply type the word “elephant” into Google, and you are provided with dozens of websites dedicated to educating you on the African Elephant.  Simply click on the first link, on Wikipedia, and you have virtually all the information you need to complete your grade school book report.  It made me wonder, does Encyclopedia Britannica even have a website, or did the company completely go out of business.  I did a little research, and it turns out that they do in fact have a website, but if you really want to dig deep and do your research on the African elephant, you need to pay to do so.  Now why on earth would I do that when I have access to so much free information?  I don’t really get it.  By the way, Encyclopedia Britannica also allows you to order your very own set of 32 new, and presumably updated volumes for the low low price of $1,349??  Again, why would I pay such a ridiculous price when I can get everything I need for free?  Perhaps they are trying to target an audience who thinks that the internet is just a fad, and will pass as soon as everyone discovers how “useless” it is.  But then one would assume that those same people probably wouldn’t be surfing the internet for encyclopedias to begin with.  They’d be buying them from a door to door salesman or a mail order catalog, wouldn’t they?  So why even have it on your site?  It baffles me.

Now of course I must mention that a lot of what turns up on the internet is user generated, and not always reliable.   But for the most part, you can find enough factual information to get the job done.  I feel sorry for you, Encyclopedia Britannica, I really do.  No one wants you anymore, but you’re still trying to hang on.  Why not just make your site free, and get some more advertisers on there?  Until then, I’ll take my chances with Google.


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