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Passing of an era

A sad day or a sign of the future? Encyclopedia Britannica ends its 244-year reign and gives the goods away for free

Another death for the printing industry: The Encyclopedia Britannica announced earlier this month that the 244-year running, biennial printed volumes will be discontinued, heralding the end of an era.

We all grew up with these iconic bound volumes lining the shelves of our local library, overcrowding the studies of our parents' and grandparents' homes, but CNNMoney reports that the backbreaking and sometimes-murderous printed edition stopped being lucrative years ago.

Britannica president Jorge Cauz acknowledged that the print edition currently makes up less than 1 percent of company sales. 

 But who is going to pay for a subscription to an online encyclopedia when Google and Wikipedia lie at one's fingertips, up-to-date and completely gratis?

 The online version of the Britannica hasn't been very financially fruitful, either — that facet represents 15 percent of revenue, while online learning tools and curriculum products comprise the remaining 85 percent — but this sea change signals the company's desire to keep up with an increasingly digital marketplace.

"By concentrating our efforts on our digital properties, we can continuously update our content and further expand the number of topics and the depth with which they are treated without the space constraints of the print set," Cauz wrote in a blog post.

"In fact, today our digital database is much larger than what we can fit in the print set. And it is up to date because we can revise it within minutes anytime we need to, and we do it many times each day."

But who is going to pay for a subscription to an online encyclopedia when Google and Wikipedia lie at one's fingertips, up-to-date and completely gratis?

According to Cauz, it's a responsibility issue, one that requires an interest in accuracy.

He tells CNNMoney, "Wikipedia is a wonderful technology for collecting everything from great insights to lies and innuendos. It's not all bad or all good, just uneven. It's the murmur of society, a million voices rather than a single informed one."

Britannica Online offered its online bank of knowledge for free through March 20, in honor of the announcement, and after a much-needed website redesign, some of the online content will remain free to lure in potential customers. 

In the meantime, if you'd like to get your hands on the last-ever printed edition, the 2010 volume — in all of its 32-volume, 65,000-article, 44 million-word glory — sells for just $1,395 right here

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