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Encyclopedias Survive by Going Online

  • Ted Landphair

Not all sets of encyclopedias are this worn, but even newer editions are out of date for the millions who look online for reference material.

Not all sets of encyclopedias are this worn, but even newer editions are out of date for the millions who look online for reference material.

The door-to-door encyclopedia salesman is obsolete, but his product isn't

The other day, a few of us here at VOA got to talking about occupations that have grown obsolete, or nearly so, in these fast-changing times. Typewriter repair technician for one. And typist, come to think of it.

And here’s one that’s going, going but not quite gone: reference-book publisher.



Shelves on offices across America are still packed with sets of encyclopedias and thick individual books about geography, history, law, science, and the origin and use of words.

But most of them haven’t been cracked open in months or years. They have become historical artifacts - part of the office décor. The key word in this message is “free.” The easy, often free, availability of online material has rendered many printed reference works obsolete.

The key word in this message is “free.” The easy, often free, availability of online material has rendered many printed reference works obsolete.

It’s not because their users have grown lazy, or because the books’ contents are any less valuable. As you might guess, it’s because their information is available in a flash in hundreds or even thousands of places online.

If you want to find out about honeycombs, for instance, you’re not limited to a trusty encyclopedia article, perhaps written 20 years ago. On the Worldwide Web, you can electronically access as much about honeycombs as you feel like reading. Or watching.

Fewer than half the sets of expensive, specialized encyclopedias are being sold today than were 10 years ago. But this hasn’t put reference-book publishers out of business. They’re making up for lost revenue by selling subscriptions to the electronic version of their works to libraries, universities, hospitals, and law offices around the world. The online encyclopedias are regularly updated and offer visual treats not found in the paper edition.

Their publishers, or perhaps we should say “content creators,” have little choice if they want to stay in business. At least they’re saving big bucks at their book warehouses, and sparing lots of trees as well.

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