Last week, Encyclopaedia Britannica, a venerable byword for knowledge in its myriad dimensions, announced it would cease publication in print. It was a sad, sentimental moment for some of us who have spent large portions of their childhood years in quiet libraries, being awed by the volumnious tomes with their burgundy-coloured bound hardcovers, and opening them to look up a topic like in a dictionary, and finding a treasure trove.
The first edition of the EB was completed in 1771. The last 2010 edition printed 4,000 copies, some of which are yet to sell. Henceforth, the Britannica will only be available online and as an app (application) that you can access on a tablet PC or smartphone.
I have pre-teen memories of learning from the EB on the rules of cricket and on the first two village matches played, and the way the game was invented. I should be sad for the parting of the romantic feel of the papers. But then, I also know how the soul lives on while the body says goodbye.
EB.com remains a venerable institution. The power of knowledge is the power to reinvent oneself. That is exactly what the old paper giant has done. Today, if you surf on to the EB website you will find sections that help you compare countries, go back to this day in history, study timelines and analyse world data – in a few seconds.
In other words, EB.com has not slept on its laurels but made itself relevant to a dynamic, connected world where knowledge is less about storage of information and more about the generation of relevant insights in that moment.
We have developed this horribly convenient idea of looking up the Wikipedia for information, not realising that a community-driven site has its limitations. There is nothing to beat structured information that is not only easily searchable but also sortable, and then in that, the authenticity of knowledge from expert sources. EB remains a benchmark in that, though it has not been without its controversies.
In a word of freely floating information and social media chatter, reliability and relevance are key benchmarks to help us make sense of an explosion of information. EB remains a key source for that.