Daily Tedium

Reopening the Book

Another side of the CD-ROM encyclopedia’s history, particularly where Encyclopaedia Britannica is concerned, and a bit of a mea culpa on my end of things.

By Ernie Smith

If you look at nearly every retelling of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s move away from the physical book, the story goes something like this: Britannica ran head-first into the digital revolution and nearly lost its head in the process. And, like a few other retellings of this story, that was the story arc of a recent piece of mine on the matter.

So it wasn’t the world’s greatest feeling to see someone claiming that I had gotten this story arc completely wrong. But to be fair, he was there, and it was important I hear him out.

Joseph Esposito, who previously served as Encyclopaedia Britannica’s CEO during the 1990s and is now a scholarly publishing consultant, says that Britannica turned down Microsoft twice in the ‘90s, and Encarta wasn’t the reason. The first time, it was before Encarta even existed; the second time, which Esposito presided over, it was because the encyclopedia-maker had already decided that the CD-ROM business model simply was not the right one for the company. And that, he says, led the company to focus more on the internet—and it did launch an internet-based version of the encyclopedia in late 1994.

“They could not believe that we were walking away from CD-ROM,” he told me. “They viewed multimedia as the key, we viewed regular updating over the Internet as the key. They offered very little and we were not interested.”

This, of course, wasn’t the way that the story was portrayed to the media at the time—it was closer to the way I wrote my piece, and digging through the stories of the era ultimately led me to the same conclusion. (Per Esposito: “The coverage was ridiculous. It was all lies, literally.”)

But if the truth is more complicated and more nuanced, I feel like it’s important to make that clear. So tonight, after a bit of back and forth with Joseph Esposito, I updated the story with some of his comments, adding an editor’s note that highlighted that I did. I still think Microsoft is a driving force of the death of the printed encyclopedia, and my piece still says that, but I wanted to be sure that someone with first-hand knowledge of the era had their voice in there. (I also linked an essay that he wrote in the late ‘90s that highlighted the economic factors of the era. He says this later essay probably better describes his current thinking on publishing.)

Anyway, why turn what effectively is a mea culpa into a full post? Well, it’s because I know that the post I wrote a month ago got a lot of reach, and I need to ensure that this added wrinkle gets some sort of notice.

My goal with Tedium is to make sure that small-but-interesting histories don’t fall through the cracks, and that they are accurately told.

I owe it to you guys not to screw this up. Sorry for failing to follow through this time.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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