Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 916:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 916.

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 reflect upon.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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. Lienhard.

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