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Friday, March 16, 2012 - 13:25 - Kevin Garber @ke_ga

Interview with 91.7 ABC Gold Coast - After 244 Encyclopaedia Britannica Is No More

if the above doesn't work you can download the MP3 (right click on link and choose "save as" or similar)

I was interviewed by Bernadette Young from ABC Gold Coast Radio regarding Encyclopaedia Brittanica's decision to end the print version of its Encyclopaedia after 244 years of continuous publishing.

You can listen to the interview above - below is the transcript.

Kevin Garber



Bernadette Young: Bernadette Young with you this afternoon.

My Mum always tells this story about me, as a kid. Maybe I was about eight years old, so grade three. I'd been sent home with some homework, to find out the Islands of Indonesia. 

Now, I'm sure the teacher just wanted the standard Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Bali, whatever else, but instead I'm sitting there with the Funk & Wagnall's all around me, and lamenting the fact that I've got to learn something like 17,500 islands, because that's what actually makes up Indonesia.

There I was, busily looking it up in the encyclopaedia, as you did back in the day, before computers, before anything else. If you wanted the truth about something, as Ruthie Foster was just singing about, you went to the encyclopaedia.

I know that my next guest started out with World Book and then proudly, ever so proudly, upgraded to leather-bound, thank you very much, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It is the Britannica that will be no more. Kevin Garber is the CEO of Melon Media. He does a lot online. I don't know if you ever go to those Britannicas anymore, do you, Kevin?

Kevin Garber: They're still in my parents' home in Sidney, and I look at them curiously when I walk in, especially the gold veneer on the top of the pages. As someone said in one of the articles I was reading, "Well, they look really beautiful on the bookshelves," and they do.

Bernadette: Yeah, they do, and they feel beautiful, as well. There is something about going to an encyclopaedia for information. The thing is, I don't know if anyone does it anymore, do they?

Kevin: Well, apparently in some niches, encyclopaedias still sell quite well - foreign languages, various industries, folklore, religious encyclopaedias - but the general interest ones, obviously this is a very significant moment, where it's the end of 244 years. That's an excellent run.

Bernadette: Yeah, and the longest continuously published encyclopaedia in the English language. In some respects, I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier, to be honest with you, Kevin.

Kevin: Yeah, I think that is an excellent run. Interestingly, it peaked in 1990, with 120,000 sets sold, and 1990 is not all that long ago. The consumer Internet wasn't that far away, '95, '96, so 120,000 sets sold in 1990. The 2010 edition, which is their most recent edition, only sold 8,000, so quite a significant drop.

Bernadette: Now, the 2010 edition, did that come out in 2010, and they've only made this announcement now, that that's going to be our last one, in retrospect? Or has the 2010 edition come out in 2012.

Kevin: I assume it came out in 2011.

Bernadette: OK, 2011. OK.

Kevin: Yes, and they probably announced there will now be not a 2011 edition in 2012.

Bernadette: Yeah. I guess this gets to part of the issue, is that people want up-to-date information, and we're talking about within the last hour, not just even within the last year, aren't we?

Kevin: The real-time web has really come to life over the last few years. Of course, with the advent of Twitter, which really sums it all up, where it is the real-time web. Anyone who's actually used the search functionality on Twitter will really get that sense of immediacy.

In San Francisco, it's really quite interesting. When you feel a shake in the building, the first thing you do is hop on Twitter and you search for "earthquake," and you see if everyone else has tweeted about an earthquake, to see if it was a truck going by, or it was actually an earthquake.

The real-time web has been here for quite some time, and very different to the static encyclopaedias, dramatically so.

Bernadette: There's a few comments on our Facebook page, Vivian says she learned never to take her volumes of the encyclopaedia to school for school projects. "We now have a full set of 1977 World Book encyclopaedias, minus the T volume, that obviously is at the school somewhere, or well and truly lost by now."

She also says that we do so much more research online nowadays, but much of what we read online is not necessarily verified.

There was some research done on this a few years ago, now, I think it was 2005. Britannica disputed it a lot, at the time. Can we trust, say - Wikipedia would be where most people go now - can you trust that, as much as you can trust something like Encyclopaedia Britannica?

Kevin: That study was really interesting. They analysed 42 articles, and they cross-referenced some information in there. They found that Britannica made, on average, three errors per article, and Wikipedia four errors per article, which is a very, very small difference.

Of course, another significant difference is that, in Britannica, there'd only be one or two contributors to articles, maybe a couple more, but nothing like the Wikipedia crowd-sourced, wisdom of the crowds, which is obviously dramatically different, where anyone can edit any Wikipedia article.

The models are really quite significantly different. Encyclopaedia Britannica, you may have an expert writing on a topic, but at the end of the day, it is still only one expert per article.

Bernadette: Vivian also asks, "I'm assuming they'll still be producing the CD version." It's not that Britannica are completely going out of business. What are they going to be doing?

Kevin: Britannica makes most of its money these days by curriculum materials, which I understand to be materials for schools, to help them teach and tutor, etc. They also make a small bit of money by subscription services, so they have digitized their content somehow, and are providing access for users, but that is only five per cent of their revenue.

A funny little anecdote, of course Encarta, which is Microsoft's version, which was out on CD, and I'm not sure if it still sells or not, but when Wikipedia voluntarily brought themselves down, a couple of months ago during that whole freedom of speech debate, the Encarta Twitter account tweeted something cheeky, like, "I bet you miss me now," or "This is our moment to shine," because everyone was feeling, really, the pain of Wikipedia being down for 24 hours, I think it was.

It really has become such a pivotal point of our information lives.

Bernadette: Yeah. I've got someone, here, lamenting that kids don't seem to read from books for projects anymore. Jenny, saying that on Facebook. "I loved the Childcraft books, I still have a few from the 1974 collection."

We had the Little Golden Book Encyclopaedias, I think, for a really younger age, before we upgraded to the Funk & Wagnall's. I say that tongue in cheek, of course, because that was the poor man's version of anything, really, from what I can work out.

I cheekily said that you had "proudly" upgraded to these leather-bound Encyclopaedia Britannica, it's because it was a status. It was a status symbol to have your Britannica.

Kevin: It was a status. The popular one, and the cheaper one, was the World Book. Certain families had both, but that was definitely more of a prestige type of product.

Bernadette: If it was prestige, Kevin, do you think they missed something here? Could they have maintained an online presence? Why only five per cent of their business? Is it because Wikipedia is free?

Kevin: I think, "Have they missed something here?" is a vast understatement. Such a strong brand, such a prestigious brand, aligned with quality and integrity, and such a wonderful history behind it. They've missed an opportunity. 

Even if you go to their website now, even their website feels very dated and old-school, and they just don't quite get it. There's a very strong sense that they don't quite get it. It's probably incredibly hard for a company of 244 years, that comes from a very specific culture and a very specific momentum, to suddenly embrace it all.

They've struggled, just like some other companies such as Kodak have really struggled, to just reinvent themselves.

Bernadette: I didn't Wikipedia "Britannica," but I'm sure it would already be updated that this news has been put forward, and I guess that's just a sign of the times, isn't it, Kevin Garber, CEO of Melon Media? Always good to talk to you, thank you.

Kevin: Likewise, thank you.

Bernadette: The conversation goes on, on Facebook, if you'd like to get a little nostalgic about the way you used to use your encyclopaedias. I noticed that no one has called to say that they still use their encyclopaedia, and I'm not surprised, because I reckon even if you've got them, you're [cuts off]