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The storied past and changing future of encyclopedias on the Mac

Mel Martin

It was with some nostalgia and sadness that I noted the death of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica last week. It's yet another casualty of our rapid move to a digital world. The EB survived for 244 years, but interest was clearly not there for a set of books costing more than a thousand dollars that was out of date before it was off the presses.

I started to think about the evolution of encyclopedias and remember all the CD-ROMS I had in the past that were filled with information and seemed such a wonder. My first memory is the Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia. It came out in 1987, a few years after the first Mac appeared. It survived through several editions, but was taken off the market in 2003.

Then came Encarta from Microsoft. It was a US$50.00 CD that was heavy on multimedia, but rather light on depth. It had 66,000 articles and lots of pretty pictures. Encarta was introduced in the 90s, and was pulled off the market in 2009.

The early encyclopedias has a lot of people longing for the grand daddy of reference books, the Encyclopedia Britannica. It finally arrived in a CD edition about 20 years ago, and later became a DVD edition (now called the 2012 Utlimate Edition) that sells for $39.95. It has 100,000 articles, and includes a free 1 year subscription to the more up-to-date online version. There are also free iOS versions of the EB, and an online edition available from any browser.

The venerable World Book is still around. I grew up with one on my bedroom shelves when I was kid and I thought it contained all the world's knowledge. The company still publishes a 22 volume print edition. The World Book started as a CD-ROM for the Mac in 1990, and now survives as a downloadable program from the Mac app store. It's $29.99 and more than 2.5 GB in size. It works with Lion, and has mixed reviews.

That brings us to Wikipedia, which is now a first stop reference for most of us. It's free, available from our desktops, laptops and iOS devices. It contains a lot of knowledge that can be accessed from anywhere you have internet connectivity. Wikipedia is generally accurate -- in 2005 the science journal Nature said it was almost as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica at science entries, but the folks at EB took issue with that. Further studies have generally agreed that Wikipedia is accurate, but contributors are not vetted in any way and articles are sometimes changed or eliminated when challenged. If the answer you are seeking is important, a good suggestion is to get a second source. That's good general advice when dealing with any information.

That's my trip down memory lane. I've used all of the products I've mentioned above. I have a lot of nostalgia for books on wooden shelves, but the world is going another direction. We've never had access to more information at such a low price. Those printed encyclopedias could cost thousands of dollars. The CD versions were mostly under a hundred. Now, there is a lot of quality information for free. Wow.