After a fair run of 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s print version has decided to cease publication. In fact, publication of these leathered hardbacks, synonymous in much of the lettered world as a compendium of human knowledge, had already stopped with its 2010 edition. With people across the globe increasingly peering into a screen rather than poring over a tome to get their facts straight, this was but a ‘rite of passage’, pointed out Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. The nostalgia-tinged reactions tended to regard it more as the ‘passage of a way of life’: of a world where books off dusty shelves could serve as a doorway to the wider world, when browsing meant leafing through books and not flicking through screens.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, will of course, continue to dispense knowledge through its website, in an obvious nod to the spirit of the age. The Encyclopaedia, once the pride of libraries and an ideal of responsible if affluent parenting, held sway as long as information was structured and stolid, and mostly flowed from Anglophone countries to the rest of the world. The digital age ensured that knowledge could not be measured out from a pulpit anymore; the success of the crowd-sourced free-of-cost Wikipedia meant that it came without a premium, elite tag attached to it.
Our acute awareness of the historical moment leads us to celebrate or mourn every civilisational milestone passed. The demise of the hardbound physical book is hardly apocalyptic, but turning that technological corner is no reason to forsake the stringent and rigorous standards that earned the Encyclopaedia Britannica the respect it commands. It is a lesson that will stand the likes of Wikipedia and other information-aggregators in good stead, and preserve the best of the spirit of yesterday to combine with the best of the possibilities of tomorrow.