Pity The Poor Encyclopedia

Library users work with computers rather than books or encyclopedias in the reference center of the Martin Luther King Library March 1, 2004, in San Jose, Calif. AP

These are lonely days for encyclopedias.

At libraries, the volumes sit ignored for days on end as information-seeking patrons tap busily away at nearby computers.

Even in the warmth of a loving home, that set of hardbound books that once represented the crown tool of a good education gets the cold shoulder.

"Sometimes my mom uses it as a coaster," says high school senior Andy Ng of Daly City, Calif.

In the age of the Internet, encyclopedias are gathering dust, and most families with young children don't even consider buying the space-hogging printed sets anymore. Even digital versions struggle for attention.

Michael Gray's home computer came pre-loaded with Microsoft Corp.'s reference software, Encarta, but the seventh grader from Milpitas, Calif., has never used it. He prefers doing research online, where information from a vast array of sources comes quickly, and for the most part, for free.

Like many students, his first Internet stop is Google.

"I find information really fast," Gray says, smiling proudly. "Within five to 10 minutes, I find a good (Web) site to work from."

Sometimes teachers - in a nod to the past and to stress traditional encyclopedias' usefulness - require students to use them as a source for reports. That happened to Gray two years ago, forcing him to turn to a library's set for the first time to look up information on American Indians.

But with children now often knowing their way around a computer before they know how to read, it's almost like forcing students to use slide rules when they know calculators can do the job faster.

"The students don't want to touch this stuff anymore," librarian Sandra Kajiwara said at San Jose's Dr. Martin Luther King Library, waving to the reference shelves near her station. "This could stay here forever and no one would notice."

Indeed, the heyday of the printed encyclopedia - which presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry tried to sell oor-to-door in his first job - is long gone.

The thick volumes were long the status symbol of upper-class educated households, and sales surged in the 1980s when installment plans made $1,400 reference sets affordable for poorer families.

But the 1990s brought recession, saddling encyclopedia makers with defaulted loans. At the same time, computers were penetrating libraries and homes. Families with school-aged children weren't thinking about whether to spring for an encyclopedia set, but rather for a computer.

Then the World Wide Web exploded, making reference works on CD-ROMs seem antiquated.

"The Internet was really the fifth nail that was driven into the coffin - not the first," said Joe Esposito, former chief executive of Encyclopaedia Britannica and now an independent consultant for digital media.

Reference providers such as Collier's and Funk & Wagnalls collapsed while others were swallowed by rivals. Britannica, the behemoth first published in 1768, saw the number of print sales drop by 60 percent from 1990 to 1996, said Jorge Cauz, Britannica's president.

A few years after it ended door-to-door sales to households in 1996, Britannica bet - wrongly - on the then-popular strategy of giving away free online content while relying on Internet ad revenue. The company now charges libraries and individual subscribers for complete access to Britannica.com. (Privately held Britannica would not disclose current figures but said its 32-volume print productions are far less than the annual 100,000-unit sales of the '80s).

The shrunken reference powers that survived the shakeout - namely Britannica, World Book, and Grolier, the maker of Encyclopedia Americana now owned by Scholastic Library Publishing - have retooled to focus more on online products.

Voluminous sets are still printed, but only for institutions. The encyclopedia companies are also targeting consumers with more concise and less expensive reference books.

It's no surprise that the fastest-growing profits are in the online segment. After all, how can rigid volumes compete with information that can be updated almost instantly on the Internet?

Once-a-year updates for printed editions means that some information can be stale before the books even get out of the box. Besides, electronic encyclopedias have more colorful pictures, video and audio clips, and quick links to additional resources.

"Kids can hear and see Martin Luther King deliver his `I Have a Dream' speech, and there's nothing in a book that can do that," said Cynthia Richey, president of the Association for Library Service to Children.

Britannica.com, which has about 200,000 subscribers and is accessible to more than 30 million people through libraries, makes monthly updates. Microsoft's Encarta, which debuted in 1993, does weekly downloadable revisions.

"It's enormously liberating," said Gary Alt, Encarta's editorial director and a former Britannica and World Book editor. Encarta "can even make an emergency change" - as it did last year after the space shuttle Columbia blew up.

Still, challenges lie ahead.

Among CD or DVD versions, Microsoft's $70 Encarta is the best seller but industry-wide sales for encyclopedia software fell 7.3 percent in 2003 from 2002, according to market researcher, The NPD Group.

And while the encyclopedia industry's overall revenue in the United States is growing, sales in 2003 totaled only about $300 million, compared to the high of $800 million in 1989, Esposito estimated.

Students all want to use the Internet, librarians say, though younger ones sometimes get lost in the sea of information on the World Wide Web.

"Half of them want to jump on the computer and are not even sure what they want to look up," said Sue Krumbein, a middle-school librarian in Menlo Park. Krumbein's rule: Students must first complete book-based research to narrow their questions before surfing the Web.

Librarians, the fastest human search engines in the pre-Internet era, believe encyclopedias provide great topical overviews, well-suited for elementary- and middle-school reports. There's also an ongoing debate about the reliability of data found on the Internet; kids need to be taught how to evaluate it.

Many Web sites have homework centers and cater to younger audiences. Popular sites such as BigChalk, Yahooligans!, Searchasaurus, FactsMonster, and DogPile are endorsed by educators and libraries.

With so much free online information, including proprietary databases for which libraries pay for the public's use, families like Amy Sahn's say encyclopedias seem unnecessary.

Her oldest of two sons, Zach, 10, will soon have more complicated school assignments, but the Redwood City mother thinks the Internet will suffice.

"The kids are so computer literate," Sahn said, "that it would seem almost foreign to them to use a book."


By May Wong
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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