The quiet announcement on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, was probably overlooked by many. The venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB), the world's oldest reliable data base, announced that it would discontinue its print edition. That was major news for two reasons. The first is that the EB has been around since its founding in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768. The closure represents the end of an era, a significant sign of the times. The hard cover book to which we have become so accustomed since the invention of the printing press was fast being relegated to a back-up medium, consulted less and less each year.
A manifestation of the 18th century Enlightenment for which Scotland was the leader in the English-speaking world, the EB had become the world's most reliable referential tool. Revised every two years or so, the latest 32-volume edition sold at a challenging US$1400 per set. For the past two years a digital edition has been available for around US$70. More recently, smart phone applications have been available for between $2 and $5. Since 1935 the headquarters of the EB have been in Chicago, Illinois, USA, but the publication has retained its extraordinarily high academic standards and universal coverage.
The second reason why the EB decision is important lies in what it reveals about the state of publishing. For the past few years conventional publishing has been undergoing a profound transformation. The paper book has been slowly giving way to electronically accessed "books" and other information. The encyclopaedias that constituted the most basic reference tool have gradually lost out to ubiquitously accessible reference sources such as Bing, Google and Yahoo. Even the EB produced an electronic version of its multi-volume hardcover series in the 1990s. Today newspapers have joined the online transition. So the word has moved from the printed page to the electronic page.
Electronic production makes major economies in cost, efficiency and accuracy. The electronic EB version was always more up-to-date than the printed version that took as long as a full year to go through the production process. Electronic changes can be made instantly. And as the old saying goes: "Time is money".
But the electronic transformation of our media has profound implications for our globalising societies. Information technology is predicated on the assumption that everyone has equal access to electricity and electronic equipment. That is far from the case today. And people without access to electricity cannot take advantage of any economies produced by instant online availability. The divide between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots will become even more pronounced. For countries unable to provide the basic necessities of life, adding costly informatics to their schools and libraries may be beyond their means. The majority of the world's people will fall even further behind their more developed neighbours.
There are still, the EB report indicates, about 4000 unsold hard copies of the encyclopaedia. The Jamaican Government could do well to buy as many of those copies as possible and place them in our schools and public libraries. That might be easier and cheaper than providing cheap and reliable electricity across the island. And those reference works should be good for generations.