After 244 years in print, the gold-embossed, leather-bound, 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica is going completely digital. The Britannica company, headquartered in Chicago and with about a dozen offices around the world, announced this week it’s abandoning its traditional hardcover product.
This is no surprise to the millions who access Wikipedia multiple times a day, every day – but at least one person attached to the print version of Britannica says he’s “heartbroken.”
About 10 years ago, author A.J. Jacobs began reading the entire Britannica partly as a stunt, partly as a career move (he wrote a book about it later, which landed on The New York Times bestseller list). Flipping through its tissue-thin pages and squinting at its 9-point font with the books propped in his lap, Jacobs read all 44 million words over the course of a year while his wife, friends and family poked fun at him. But he wanted to “smarten up,” he says, because he was worried that, at age 35, his brain was beginning to “turn to tapioca.”
Among other things, he learned about a-ak – ancient East Asian music (the first entry in the encyclopedia) – and Zywiec, the Polish city, population 32,000 and known primarily for its beer (the last entry in the encyclopedia).
“Stunts can have their own absurd nobility,” Jacobs noted on Wednesday, adding that George Bernard Shaw, heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, and C.S. Forester were also “members of the start-to-finish club.” (Forester actually read it through twice.) Either way, if Jacobs started his project now, he’d have to suck it up and read the whole sprawling thing online – or shell out $29.95 for the deluxe DVD (and hope that would suffice).
Here are a few more numbers associated with the iconic encyclopedia.
weight of each volume
number of hardcover copies still for sale now, from the final print run in 2010
price Jacobs paid for the hardcover set 10 years ago
price of the hardcover set now
price of the Spanish-language version
price of the French-language version
number of articles in the encyclopedia
number of pages
number of images
number of expert contributors (Nobel laureates, historians, professors, etc.)
number of “knowledge seekers” who currently access the Britannica’s website, educational sites and apps
number of workers employed by Britannica in its peak hardcover years
number of employees laid off due to the digital-only transition
year the Britannica was first printed, in Edinburgh (which is why it's retained its British spelling of encyclopedia)
year it moved its headquarters and print operations to U.S.
year it issued its 16-volume children's version
numbers of year Britannica was managed by Sears Roebuck
number of parts to Britannica since 1985: Micropaedia, Macropaedia, Propaedia, and 2-volume index
number of visionary Scotsmen who decided to create the very first edition
year the company laid off its remaining sales force in U.S. and Canada
what at least one door-to-door salesman made in his most lucrative years
the top words most often used in Britannica articles:
amount Jacobs' wife started fining him for every irrelevant Britannica-based fact he inserted into their conversations during his read