29th January 2005
I was reading this story earlier about the decision of Encyclopedia Britannica to halt printing of its print edition:
After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.
Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered sets of reference books that were once sold door to door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, the company is expected to announce on Wednesday.
In a nod to the realities of the digital age — and, in particular, the competition from the hugely popular Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools, company executives said.
The last edition of the encyclopedia will be the 2010 edition, a 32-volume set that weighs in at 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.
“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a Chicago-based company, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, a set of encyclopedias on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, an object coveted not only for its usefulness but as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. The books were often a financial stretch, with many families paying for their encyclopedias in monthly installments.
But in recent years, print reference books have been almost completely wiped out by the Internet and its vast spread of resources, particularly Wikipedia, which in 11 years has helped replace the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds.
Created as a free online encyclopedia that is now written and edited by tens of thousands of active contributors, Wikipedia has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate source, even by scholars and academics, and one that meets the 21st-century requirements of comprehensiveness and instantly updated material. It has nearly four million articles in English, many of them on pop-culture topics that would not pass muster in the pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has become a luxury item with a $1,395 price tag; it is typically purchased by embassies and well-educated, upscale consumers who feel an attachment to the set of bound volumes. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they can be purchased.
The 2010 edition had more than 4,000 contributors, including Arnold Palmer, the professional golfer (who wrote the entry on the Masters tournament), Jack J. Lissauer, a space scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center (who wrote about extrasolar planets), the professional skateboarder Tony Hawk (skateboarding) and Panthea Reid, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University and author of the biography “Art and Affection” (Virginia Woolf).
Sales of Encyclopaedia Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. But now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s revenues. About 85 percent of revenues come from selling curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language; the remainder comes from subscriptions to the Web site, the company said.
About half a million households pay a $70 annual fee that includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and access to mobile applications. A selection of articles is already available free on the Web site, said Peter Duckler, a spokesman for Britannica.
At least one other general-interest encyclopedia in the United States, the World Book, is still printing a 22-volume yearly edition, said Jennifer Parello, a spokeswoman for the company, who declined to provide sales figures but said it is purchased primarily by schools and libraries.
Gary Marchionini, the dean of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the fading of print encyclopedias is “an inexorable trend that will continue.”
“There’s more comprehensive material available on the Web,” Mr. Marchionini said. “The thing that you get from an encyclopedia is one of the best scholars in the world writing a description of that phenomenon or that object, but you’re still getting just one point of view. Anything worth discussing in life is worth getting more than one point of view.”
It was something I expected, though it did catch my eye because I had used it a number of times in the library before I started using the internet more heavily. More and more publishers- from educational to consumer to academic- are attempting to transition into digital mediums while ending their print end. While I still prefer reading things as a hard copy (haven't really found a comfortable way digitally), I can still appreciate the possibilities, at least in the educational realm. Wikipedia's impact here I think underscores the way people use the internet to find out things they haven't heard about before, rather than the traditional and more authoritative means.
It is good to make these things digital in my opinion, as it allows for better access and a better way to update and distribute material. But it has also made me wonder about copyright and pricing in our time- I have been very much bothered by paywalls in academic databases in my institution for example and the hefty prices that are imposed on the library for that purpose (I think I made a thread about that once), and we've been seeing conflicts between publishers and digital services over how copyright can be handled and how 'free' it should be. Library.nu, a repository of free e-books and such, was recently shut down after copyright disputes, and many others are feeling the pressure of copyright.
I had viewed the internet as a useful tool to profile rate knowledge and increase access to it, much in the same way the Gutenberg press freed people from the old methods of book printing controlled by the clergy, though it seems similar barriers are being thrown up around it now under the pretext of making sure they can provide those services in the first place. This piece on Al Jazeera was interesting:
Los Angeles, CA - Last week a website called "library.nu" disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. Library.nu (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free.
And not just any books - not romance novels or the latest best-sellers - but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting-edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities.
The texts ranged from so-called "orphan works" (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarkable effort of collective connoisseurship. Even the pornography was scholarly: guidebooks and scholarly books about the pornography industry. For a criminal underground site to be mercifully free of pornography must alone count as a triumph of civilisation.
To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people - namely the users of the site - it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees?
They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.
Pirating to learn
"The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn."
The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading, learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of library.nu were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.
Maybe they were students once, but went on to find jobs and found families. We made them in some cases - we gave them a four-year taste of the life of the mind before sending them on their way with unsupportable loans. In other cases, they made themselves, by hook or by crook.
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? The publishers think it is a great success in the war on piracy; that it will lead to more revenue and more control over who buys what, if not who reads what. The pirates - the people who create and run such sites - think that shutting down library.nu will only lead to a thousand more sites, stronger and better than before.
But both are missing the point: the global demand for learning and scholarship is not being met by the contemporary publishing industry. It cannot be, not with the current business models and the prices. The users of library.nu - these barbarians at the gate of the publishing industry and the university - are legion.
They live all over the world, but especially in Latin and South America, in China, in Eastern Europe, in Africa and in India. It's hard to get accurate numbers, but any perusal of the tweets mentioning library.nu or the comments on blog posts about it reveal that the main users of the site are the global middle class. They are not the truly poor, they are not slum-denizens or rural poor - but nonetheless they do not have much money. They are the real 99 per cent (as compared to the Euro-American 1 per cent).
They may be scientists or scholars themselves: some work in schools, universities or corporations, others are doubly outside of the elite learned class - jobholders whose desire to learn is and will only ever be an avocation. They are a global market engaged in what we in the elite institutions of the world are otherwise telling them to do all the time: educate yourself; become scholars and thinkers; read and think for yourselves; bring civilisation, development and modernity to your people.
Sharing is caring
Library.nu was making that learning possible where publishers have not. It made a good show of being a "book review" site - it was called library.nu after all, and not "bookstore.nu". It was not cluttered with advertisements, nor did it "suggest" other books constantly. It gave straight answers to straightforward searches, and provided user reviews of the 400,000 or more books in the database.
It was only the fact that library.nu included a link to another site ("sharehosting" sites like ifile.it, megaupload.com, or mediafire.com) containing the complete version of a digital text that brought library.nu into the realm of what passes for crime these days.
But the legality of library.nu is also not the issue: trading in scanned, leaked or even properly purchased versions of digital books is thoroughly illegal. This is so much the case that it can't be long before reading a book - making an unauthorised copy in your brain - is also made illegal.
But library.nu shared books; it did not sell them. If it made any money, it was not from the texts themselves, but from advertising revenue. As with Napster in 1999, library.nu was facilitating discovery: the ability to search deeper and deeper into the musical or scholarly tastes fellow humans and to discover their connections that no recommendation algorithm will ever be able to make. In their effort to control this market, publishers alongside the movie and music industry have been effectively criminalising sharing, learning and creating - not stealing.
Users of library.nu did not have to upload texts to the site in order to use it, but they were rewarded if they did. There were formal rules (and informal ones, to be sure), concerning how one might "level up" in the library.nu community. The site developed as websites do, adding features here and there, and obviously expanding its infrastructure as necessary. The administrators of the site maintained absolute control over who could participate and who could not - no doubt in order to protect the site from skulking FBI agents and enthusiastic newbies alike.
Even a casual observer could have seen that the frequent changes to the site were the effects of the cat-and-mouse game underway as law authorities and publishers sought to understand and eventually seek legal action against this community. In the end, it was only by donating to the site that law authorities discovered the real people behind the site - pirates too have PayPal accounts.
Shutting down learning
The winter of 2012 has seen a series of assaults on file-sharing sites in the wake of the failed SOPA and PIPA legislation. Mega-upload.com (the brainchild of eccentric master pirate Kim Dotcom - he legally changed his name in 2005) was seized by the US Department of Justice; torrent site btjunkie.com voluntarily closed down for fear of litigation.
In the last few days before they closed for good, library.nu winked in and out of existence, finally (and ironically), displayed a page saying "this domain has been revoked by .nu domain" (the island nation of Niue). It prominently displays a link to a book (on Amazon!) called Blue Latitudes, about the voyage of Captain Cook. A story about that other kind of pirate branches off here.
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? One thing it means is that these barbarians - these pirates who are also scholars - are angry. We scholars have long been singing the praises of education, learning, mutual aid and the virtues of getting a good degree. We scholars have been telling the world of desperate learners to do just what they are doing, if not in so many terms.
So there are a lot of angry young middle-class learners in the world this month. Some are existentially angry about the injustice of this system, some are pragmatically angry they must now spend $100 - if they even have that much - on a textbook instead of on themselves or their friends.
All of them are angry that what looked to everyone like the new horizon of learning - and the promise of the vaunted new digital economy - has just disappeared behind the dark eclipse of a Munich judge's cease and desist order.
Writers and scholars in Europe and the US are complicit in the shutdown. The publishing companies are protecting themselves and their profits, but they do so with the assent, if not the active support, of those who still depend on them. They are protecting us - we scholars - or so they say. These barbarians - these desperate learners - are stealing our property and should be made to pay for it.
In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies' patents and profits.
The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is - legally speaking - nearly identical. Library.nu is not unlike those clever - and also illegal - local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.
Why doesn't the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy - and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.
Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route - making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.
But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off - especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot - or will not - deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.
Instead, they print a handful of copies - less than 100, often - and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating.
To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher's black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available.
What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?
Christopher M Kelty is an Associate Professor of Information Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.