Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Printed or digital, tomes struggle

By May Wong
The Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. - These are lonely days for encyclopedias.

At libraries, the volumes sit ignored for days on end as information-seeking patrons tap busily away at nearby computers.

Even in the warmth of a loving home, that set of hard-bound books that once represented the crown tool of a good education gets the cold shoulder.

"Sometimes, my mom uses it as a coaster," says high school senior Andy Ng of Daly City, Calif..

In the age of the Internet, encyclopedias are gathering dust, and most families with young children don't even consider buying the space-hogging printed sets anymore. Even digital versions struggle for attention.

Michael Gray's home computer came pre-loaded with Microsoft Corp.'s reference software, Encarta, but the seventh-grader from Milpitas, Calif., has never used it. He prefers doing research online, where information from a vast array of sources comes quickly and, for the most part, for free.

Like many students, his first Internet stop is Google.

"I find information really fast," Gray says, smiling proudly. "Within five to 10 minutes, I find a good (Web) site to work from."

Sometimes teachers - in a nod to the past and to stress traditional encyclopedias' usefulness - require students to use them as a source for reports. That happened to Gray two years ago, forcing him to turn to a library's set for the first time to look up information on American Indians.

But with children now often knowing their way around a computer before they know how to read, it's almost like forcing students to use slide rules when they know calculators can do the job faster.

"The students don't want to touch this stuff anymore," librarian Sandra Kajiwara said at San Jose's Dr. Martin Luther King Library, waving to the reference shelves near her station. "This could stay here forever and no one would notice."

Indeed, the heyday of the printed encyclopedia - which presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry spent his first job going door-to-door trying to sell - is long gone.

The thick volumes were long the status symbol of upper-class educated households, and sales surged in the 1980s when installment plans made $1,400 reference sets affordable for poorer families.

But the 1990s brought recession, saddling encyclopedia makers with defaulted loans. At the same time, computers were penetrating libraries and homes. Families with school-aged children weren't thinking about whether to spring for an encyclopedia set, but rather for a computer.

Then the World Wide Web exploded, making reference works on CD-ROMs seem antiquated.

"The Internet was really the fifth nail that was driven into the coffin - not the first," said Joe Esposito, former chief executive of Encyclopaedia Britannica and now an independent consultant for digital media.

Reference providers such as Collier's and Funk & Wagnalls collapsed while others were swallowed by rivals. Britannica, the behemoth first published in 1768, saw the number of print sales drop by 60 percent from 1990 to 1996, said Jorge Cauz, Britannica's president.

A few years after it ended door-to-door sales to households in 1996, Britannica bet - wrongly - on the then-popular strategy of giving away free online content while relying on Internet ad revenue. The company now charges libraries and individual subscribers for complete access to (Privately held Britannica would not disclose current figures but said its 32-volume print productions are far less than the annual 100,000-unit sales of the '80s).

The shrunken reference powers that survived the shakeout - namely Britannica, World Book and Grolier, the maker of Encyclopedia Americana now owned by Scholastic Library Publishing - have now retooled to focus more on online products.

Voluminous sets are still printed, but mostly only for institutions.

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