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Encyclopedia Britannica ceases paper publishing after 244 years – how about government reports?

On Tuesday Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. announced that the company would cease printing a paper edition of their iconic Encyclopedia Britannica, after 244 years.

The last paper version – the 32-volume, 2010 edition – will be unavailable once the existing stock of about 4,000 copies runs out.

I can see it becoming a collector’s item overnight.

This change marks the end to a troubled 25 years for the company as the Encyclopedia Britannica struggled to compete against multimedia and then online encyclopedias which were much cheaper to product, distribute and buy – despite some concerns over accuracy.

Today Wikipedia, as a free online encyclopedia, contains more ‘pages’ of information than all 15 Editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica combined, compiled by hundreds of thousands of volunteer contributors from around the world, compared to the roughly 100 paid researchers who work on Britannica.

This isn’t the end for Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, they will continue to publish the encyclopedia in an online and mobile format, and produce a range of other educational products (which today provide 85% of their income).

However it does flag the encrouching end to most large-scale print production.

Book runs, annual financial statements, research reports and other massive printing exercises are increasingly shrinking as organisations provide a digital or mobile version and supplement with a minimal print run.

Given the enormous costs of printing documents in large numbers, and the challenges of allowing sufficient time for printing, fixing errors after they go to print or updating them on a regular basis, where they are a living document, this is a good thing for organisations – except for the printing industry.

For government too this is a good thing.

The budgets allocated to large print runs for annual reports, policy statements, research reports and similar documents can be re-allocated to other uses – bearing in mind that some of it should go to ensuring that agencies have robust print-on-demand and ‘eprinting’ systems, with strong templates, editorial controls and distribution formats (ebooks, mobile apps, PDFs and interactive versions).

The challenge now is to overcome some of the barriers of moving to more digital printing in government. Firstly there’s some legislative requirements for copies of documents to be tabled in parliament, or for some reports to be printed on paper – even if no-one wants a paper version.

There’s also expectation management. Many older people, and I include myself in this, feel more comfortable reading a document on paper and assume that others feel the same way. Therefore without even considering the alternatives they will give the instruction to “print 10,000 copies of this white paper”, an instruction that may never be questioned or challenged as to whether there are better and cheaper ways of meeting the actual goal (to get the white paper into peoples’ hands).

Finally there’s the challenge of media lock-ups and similar managed releases. Agencies need to consider the alternatives to printing hundreds or thousands of documents and giving them to people in a locked room.

Do they provide tablets or ebook readers with all the documents in electronic form, but no way to electronically distribute the information?

Do they use self-destructible digital formats whereby each individual ‘copy’ of a document can only be opened using a one-time username and password, and then self-destructed if copied or distributed?

I hope government agencies will treat the end of the paper-based Encyclopedia Britannica as a sign that there are now alternatives to paper – often better and cheaper alternatives – and consider their own print production to see if there’s any unnecessary printing that can be stopped or transitioned into more useful digital forms.

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Cindy Lou Baker

My opinion is that the Government Printing Office should be shut down. They cost far more than any Kinko’s and have never done a single project to specifications. I’m pretty tired of hard copy anything. Banks, hospitals, and the stock market should be exempt.

Corey McCarren

That’s kinda sad in a way that they are ceasing print editions, but it’s definitely just keeping up with the times. I also am a huge advocate for digitizing as much as we can to save paper, time, expenses, so this is a step in the right direction. Still sad in a strange way.