Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias…NY Times

A piece in Sunday’s New York Times

hints that the veritable leather-bound sets of encyclopedias that lined the bookshelves of many families (and libraries) for generations may be going the way of the Viewmaster and the Fuller Brush Man. One statistic that brings the trend home is that sales of Encyclopedia Britannica, the Rolls Royce of encyclopedias, have dropped by 90% since 1990, and their 2000 strong sales force is no more. (Apparently, the demand for door-to-door salesmen approaches zero when your only customers are schools and libraries. However, despite being a shell of its former size, company is still profitable. )

Britannica is not the only one forced to adapt to the migration to the online world. The Encyclopedia Americana has also hinted that there will not be a print edition in 2009. Several European publishers, including Brockhause, have moved their contents entirely online, for free (albeit ad-supported). The NYT piece goes on to trace the development of the various web-based offerings, including of course, Wikipedia (consistently in the top ten most visited sites) as well as the more recent Encyclopedia of Life, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, among others.

This article quotes a number of nostalgic encyclopedia users who are lamenting the loss of a set of bound books that you can thumb through. It seems to me that the void that some fear is being created by the online world can be filled to some degree by e-book readers such as the Kindle. Sure, it has already includes easy access to Wikipedia, but look at the value proposition if you’re an encyclopedia publisher: if you’re seeking new channels for your high-valued content, and are already able to charge a subscription for access it online, making it available via a wireless device like the Kindle could present an incremental revenue stream.

The Kindle also can act as a bridge for those tactile readers who prefer to hold their reference books in their hands. The article offers an ideal metaphor in the following paragraph, which quotes Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor and chairman of the Encyclopedia of Life project:

Asked about his own experience with encyclopedias, Professor Wilson said, “I grew up in Alabama — we didn’t have things like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in our home.” What he did have were field guides. “All the field guides — for snakes, butterflies, turtles. Back in the 40s, I had my butterfly nets, and I was right up to date through my guides,” Professor Wilson said.

He added: “There are nerds that say we will have something the size of a field guide, and punch in something. Maybe I am hopelessly old fashioned, but a kid with a knapsack, and a Boy Scout or Girl Scout manual, printed, a field guide on snakes or butterflies, printed, is the best combination in the world.”

It’s not a huge leap to imagine the Kindle as a portable “field guide to the world”. New species could be incorporated within days of discovery.