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Encyclopaedia Britannica's online shift could stifle discovery

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Encyclopaedia Britannica is the latest medium to evaporate into the cloud. After 244 years in print, the information giant recently announced that it will cease publication of its bound edition and publish its content digitally.

I was disheartened, even saddened by the news. I am a lifelong encyclopedia explorer, and this marks the end of a long and beautiful voyage.

When I was four or five (too young to even read them), my mom brought home a set of encyclopedias. Even before I could read, I loved flipping through the pages and looking at the pictures. There were pictures of owls, palm trees, the Eiffel Tower (and about 10,000 more pictures), but, since I couldn't read, I didn't know what they were.

By the time I was in first grade and learning to read, I would pull one off the shelf, sit down on the living room floor and just browse through it until I came upon something that captured my interest. And now that I could read about the pictures, the world began to tell a story. Right there on the living room floor I began my lifelong discovery of the world.

I would start with one volume, and within a half hour I'd have six or seven of them scattered around me on the floor. One discovery would lead to another. And it would grow from there. It was a chain of discovery.

In addition to the knowledge I gained from reading and browsing our encyclopedias, I gained other valuable life skills. I improved my reading skills. I expanded my attention span. I discovered the joy of discovery.

The encyclopedia was my ship, and curiosity was the wind that powered my voyage around the world, into the past and through the universe.

True, with Encyclopaedia Britannica moving their information online, the same information will still be there. In fact, in this digital age there is more ready-to-access information than at any time in history. With hyperlinks embedded in every article, it's easier than ever to follow the chain of discovery, but that comes with a catch: It's also easier than ever to lose it. One click and you're back to YouTube or Facebook.

In today's great information age, the potential for learning and discovery is greater than ever, the chain of discovery could stretch further than it ever possibly could with my print edition encyclopedias. I hope that a new generation of curious kids will follow these hyperlinks further and further into greater realms of discovery. I hope they will — I just don't know if they will.

After many voyages of discovery, the great and serviceable ship Encyclopaedia Britannica is at last brought to the wrecking yard. And a great new Cloudship rolled out in its place. But with it discovery's grounding gravity is gone. And I think that's what saddens me about the demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica's print edition. I fear that discovery in the cloud will now become ethereal and flighty.

In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I used discover rich new countries and anchor myself in their harbors for a while. Every curious kid who has spent rainy afternoons paging through stacks of encyclopedias knows what I mean. But the Cloudship Britannica, I worry, isn't built for anchoring. It's built for flitting about.

Steven Law writes about science and nature for KSL.com. He is an alumnus of Southern Utah University and a resident of Draper.

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