One of the most vivid memories I have from childhood is that of marveling at a set of books bound in rich leather staring back at me austerely through a wooden cabinet. Yes, I’m talking about the Encyclopedia Britannica. I didn’t get to touch one then. But a couple of years later, I did get to browse through a few volumes when I was researching a geography project. No, Wikipedia wasn’t anywhere on the scene yet. This was the eighties. But I remember that delightful experience as I searched the dusty library cabinets to select the volume I wanted, and then flipped through the musty pages till I reached the section on France. Needless to say, I aced the report. But Mar 14, 2012 marked the end of the era.

The Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it would cease production of its iconic multi-volume book sets. This makes the 32 volume 2010 edition the last print version. While the company was the first to venture into bringing out a digital version of its encyclopedia way back in the seventies, the arrival of the Internet completely changed the dynamics of the game. Print suddenly started going out of fashion, at last when it came to information. The Internet was quicker and a much richer source of data with regular updates. The print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica continued to trudge through the nineties and the first decade of the twenty first century purely on the basis of the goodwill that it had generated over two centuries. But it was always a foregone conclusion that the end would come sooner than later.

If we simply look at the contribution of the print version as a percentage of total revenues, it stood at a mere 1% at the time of the announcement. As opposed to this, subscriptions to the Web site contributed 15% with the remaining 85% coming from sales of curriculum products. The print version cost a hefty $1395. But today’s masses are not even willing to pay a dollar for information. The reason for this phenomenon was born 11 years ago with the arrival of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. While the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica claims more accuracy, Wikipedia has left it far behind when it comes to usage. In fact, this was one of the key lessons of the Internet bubble that had burst just about a year before the launch of Wikipedia – that people were not willing to pay for information.

But still, 244 years and seven million sets is a very good run. R.I.P.