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On the death of Encyclopaedia Britannica: All authoritarian regimes eventually fall

Let us trumpet the end of Encyclopaedia Britannica's print edition. We should celebrate the fact that in a Web 2.0, Wikipedia world, information now roams free. It lives and breathes, loosed from cages where it was allowed to reproduce only once a year, edition by edition.

Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. announced March 13 that it will stop publishing print editions of its flagship encyclopedia for the first time since the sets were originally published 244 years ago. Op-ed contributor Jim Sollisch says we shouldn't mourn this end but instead celebrate the fact that information now roams free – in places like Wikipedia.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor/file

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I read the news last week: an old friend died. He’d been hanging on for years, a shadow of his former self. Once he was the leading authority on almost every subject. Someone you sought out to settle disputes or provide crucial information. He was strong and handsome, in that old-school professorial-leather-patched-sleeves kind of way.

But strength isn’t an adaptive asset anymore. Today, the nimble and ephemeral inherit the earth. And so Encyclopaedia Britannica has lain to rest its print edition, those gold-lettered pillars that held up your family’s bookshelves. It was a good run – 244 years. But all authoritarian regimes eventually fall.

So let us not praise gold-leafed-leather-bound knowledge. Rather, let us trumpet its passing. Let’s celebrate the fact that information now roams free, great herds of it. It lives and breathes, loosed from cages where it was allowed to reproduce only once a year, edition by edition.

There was a time not so long ago that if you heard a new word – “dialogued” – for example, you had to wait until the Oxford English dictionary published its annual edition to see if it really was a word. Today we turn nouns into verbs as easily as we “friend” people on Facebook. And when enough people use the word and write the word, it’s a word. We don’t need an authority’s stamp of approval.

As a writer, I like that. I made up a word once. About 20 years ago, I used the word “sniggered” in a column. The proofreader questioned it, pointing to Webster’s, which labeled it a “common misspelling of the word ‘snickered.’” I liked the guttural, onomatopoeia-ness of the word, and I prevailed.

I felt like a god. I’ve since found out that “snigger” isn’t a misspelling but a slang term for “snicker” that can be traced back to 1777. Oh well. I took solace in the fact that the word may never before have graced the pages of a newspaper.

The last edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica weighed in at 129 pounds and cost $1,395. It’s remarkable to consider how much information you can access digitally for $1,395, considering Wi-Fi is free at libraries, in most cities, and at every Starbucks. Or that a really great Internet connection can be as little as $40 a month.


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