Depending on your age, you may or may not remember using encyclopedias.

They were (and still are) a collection of thick hardbound volumes organized A-to-Z that ambitiously aimed to be the authoritative voice on every subject in the universe. For decades, encyclopedias were the go-to primary resource in public libraries and in many homes for students needing to write research papers. And they were sold to middle-class and wealthy parents using fear tactics. Want your child to succeed in school? Buy these books that will take up half your living room or risk the consequences!

The above 1969 advertisement from LIFE magazine sums up the marketing pitch of the once-mighty encyclopedia industry. Hollywood legend Red Skelton shares his hopes and dreams for his inquisitive daughter, Georgia, concluding that “if you really want to give your children a good start on life, get Brittanica.” 

Of all the famous encyclopedia brands, only the World Book survives today as a print edition – other brands have either gone digital or are out of business. But the World Book also currently offers a digital edition. To not do so would render the brand irrelevant.

The Old Way of Sharing Information: Problems with Access and Accuracy

Vintage advertisement for the World Book Encyclopedia, a public library relic in the pre-digital era.

Printed encyclopedias were expensive. Publishers offered a “book-a-month” payment plan where it would take two years to purchase the full set. Presumably, those students would choose to do their social studies reports on Afghanistan and Bolivia over Yemen and Zambia.

Before the internet, if you weren’t lucky enough to have rich parents, you had to physically visit a library to do your research. But traveling was just the first obstacle to completing your project. If you wanted to learn about elephants, but there was another student who checked out the “E” volume first to study electricity, you would have to wait until he or she returned the book before you could access your information.

The “India” entry in the 1959 edition of The Golden Book Encyclopedia, which was written for elementary school children.

Access aside, an equally vexing problem was information accuracy. From an encyclopedia publisher’s perspective, the best thing about their product was that it became obsolete not long after it was purchased. Customers would need to keep buying updated versions every year. 

I recently bought a set of old children’s encyclopedias at a flea market for only $2. I was curious to see what kids were being taught about the world a half century ago. The photo above features the 1959 entry on India, presenting it as a “new” country only a few years after the British Empire left the region. The population is listed at just under 382 million and the economy is presented as mostly agriculture and mining.

Of course, a country’s population (India is now at 1.38 billion) and economy (India is now a powerhouse in tech and pharma) can experience dramatic changes over six decades. But the truth about printed media is that it can become obsolete in minutes.

When the internet ushered in the digital transformation of print publications, the way the world accessed, consumed and shared information changed forever. In the case of online encyclopedias, that meant the capability for frequent updates to include disruptive political events and new scientific discoveries when they happened. For schools, this meant eliminating the need to purchase expensive physical volumes and replacing them with digital subscriptions.

With online encyclopedias, multiple students can now simultaneously access the same exact articles without the hassles of checking out a volume or waiting for a classmate to finish their research before they can even begin a project.

Digital encyclopedias and news sources also ensure that everyone is accessing the latest version of information – preventing a scenario where one student is reading about 2017 knowledge about the human immune system versus the newest 2021 facts. 

The quantum leap between printed and digital encyclopedias is similar to the gap between using file-based on-premise CAD and using cloud-based CAD. Having immediate online access to the latest updated design data, with teams being able to work from anywhere, has fundamentally improved the way that engineers and manufacturers develop products.

Surely, you didn’t think this blog post was just about encyclopedias, did you?

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