Today, let's decide what kind of encyclopedia to
use. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Four years ago I had
business at the Encyclopaedia
Britannica offices in Chicago. I got a nice
look at their product line. One, just coming out,
was a CD-ROM version of their junior encyclopaedia.
I asked when I could put the full
Britannica on my computer. They
weren't sure -- certainly not next year.
Now Forbes magazine tells us that the
Britannica never did appear in a
CD-ROM version, and it's in trouble. You see,
door-to-door salesmen were the only
Britannica sales force. If they'd
replaced their $1500 product with much cheaper
discs, they would've slashed commissions and lost
the only sales outlet they knew.
The public responded to the decision not to go
electronic. They've been buying other encyclopedias
on discs with pictures and even sound tracks.
Britannica sales have nose-dived. The
year I visited the head office, they earned $40
million. The next year they lost $12 million. Since
then, the situation has grown worse. And they've
lost most of their sales force after all.
There's a peculiar catch to all this. The
Grolier Encyclopedia for young people
is available to the public on our library
computers. It's fast, it's slick, it has pictures.
But -- I never use it. I know it's there. I show it
off to visitors. But when I want information, I go
to the paper encyclopedias. Why?
So I talked with our reference librarians. They
told me that, given a choice between electronic and
paper encyclopedias, most patrons do the same
thing. They choose the volumes on the shelf.
Librarians and patrons alike use the electronic
versions to look up data: Where's Ulan Bator? When
was the War of 1812? But that's not what major
encyclopedias are for.
A big encyclopedia will give a succinct physical
geography of Central Asia -- or a history of forces
that drove England and America to war in 1812. It
will offer serious in-depth information you can
The Encyclopaedia Britannica is losing
money on a product whose actual use is hardly
affected by the very competition that's killing it.
That sounds convoluted, but the sad fact is that
Britannica stayed alive by
aggressively selling its product to people who
believed they should have a set, more than to
people who really used their wonderful product.
CD-ROM discs have their
place. It's nice when we can find Nero's birth date
without breaking stride on our word processor. But
the big old encyclopedias must survive. If you want
to know what was going on when Nero was born,
you'll take up your corporeal
Britannica with its 22-page article on
Rome. You'll go off and study it -- in bed, on the
porch, or even in the park.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Samuels, G., CD-ROM's First Big Victim.
Forbes, Feb. 28, 1994, pp. 42-44.
This episode took shape in two back-to-back events.
First, Nancy Buchanan, UH Library, gave a lecture
on the new electronic media in which she mentioned
the relative non-use of the electronic encyclopedia
at the library. A few days later, my wife showed me
the seemingly contradictory Forbes
article. In completing the episode, I leaned upon
the experience of UH Library personnel: Carolyn
Meanley, Sam Hyde, Jeff Fadell, Pat Bozeman, Judy
Myers, and Melanie Mayeaux.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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