These days, many of us live online, where machine-generated content has begun to pollute the Internet with misinformation and noise. At a time when it's hard to know what information to trust, I felt delight when I recently learned that World Book still prints an up-to-date book encyclopedia in 2023. Although the term "encyclopedia" is now almost synonymous with Wikipedia, it's refreshing to see such a sizable reference printed on paper. So I bought one, and I'll tell you why.
Based in Chicago, World Book, Inc. first published an encyclopedia in 1917, and it has released a new edition almost every year since 1925. The company, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, claims that its encyclopedia is "the only general reference encyclopedia still published today." My research seems to back up this claim, at least in English; it's possibly true even for languages. Its fiercest competitor of yore, The Encyclopedia Britannica, ended its print run in 2012 after 244 years in print.
In a nod to our present digital age, World Book also offers its encyclopedia as a subscription service through the web. Yet it's the print version that mystifies and attracts my fascination. Why does it still exist?
"Because there is still a demand!" Tom Evans, World Book's editor-in-chief, told Ars over email.
Today, up-to-date information flows freely thanks to the Internet. It's only a Google search away. Many people rely on Wikipedia, which is a nonprofit collaborative resource, for reference purposes. Despite that, some people and organizations apparently still buy paper encyclopedias. Evans said that sales of the print edition are "in the thousands" and that World Book always prints just enough copies to satisfy demand.
A World Book rep told Quartz in 2019 that the print encyclopedia sold mostly to schools, public libraries, and homeschooling families. Today, Evans says that public and school libraries are still the company's primary customers. "World Book has a loyal following of librarians who understand the importance of a general reference encyclopedia in print form, accessible to all."
As a kid, our family owned a 1968 edition of World Book that I relied on for school reports and projects all the way until my high school graduation in 1999, although I briefly used Microsoft Encarta on CD-ROM and a CompuServe encyclopedia in the 1990s. At the time, even with electronic references, instantaneous, up-to-date information didn't seem as important. We were still largely operating at the speed of paper. While that concept seems foreign to us in our current world, there was a certain kind of comfort in that slowness.
Speaking of slow, a paper encyclopedia set certainly can't run away from you. Back in the day, our family's encyclopedia set took up a large dedicated shelf in our family room. Just like my old 1968 edition, the new print edition of World Book is a physically hefty reference. The 2023 version spans 17,000 articles spread over 14,000 pages in 22 volumes. The company says it features over 25,000 photographs, illustrations, diagrams, and maps.
All this paper-bound content can't possibly come cheap, you might think. And, of course, you're right. At a time when most information comes to us for free online (with strings attached, of course), it's easy to have sticker shock at the $1,199 retail price for the 2023 edition of World Book, although shoppers might occasionally find it for as low as $799 on Amazon (to compare, the online subscription costs $250 per year). Earlier editions are available for much lower prices.
I know it may seem weird to prefer the print edition since you can get the same content in the online version in a space-saving and portable format. But with the paper version, the World Book will always be yours. It can't be edited stealthily or taken down if the company needs the server space or goes out of business.
So I took the plunge.