- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

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,” said 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 preloaded 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.

Sometimes teachers require students to use encyclopedias as a source for reports, 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.”

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-age children weren’t thinking about saving for an encyclopedia set, but rather for a computer.

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

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

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. The encyclopedia companies are also targeting consumers with more concise and less expensive reference books.

It’s no surprise that the fastest-growing profits are in the online segment. After all, how can rigid volumes compete with information that can be updated almost instantly on the Internet? And electronic encyclopedias have more colorful pictures, video and audio clips, and quick links to additional resources.

“Kids can hear and see Martin Luther King deliver his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and there’s nothing in a book that can do that,” said Cynthia Richey, president of the Association for Library Service to Children.

Britannica.com, which has about 200,000 subscribers and is accessible to more than 30 million people through libraries, makes monthly updates. Microsoft’s Encarta, which debuted in 1993, does weekly downloadable revisions.

Still, challenges lie ahead.

Among CD or DVD versions, Microsoft’s $70 Encarta is the best seller but industrywide sales for encyclopedia software fell 7.3 percent in 2003 from 2002, according to market researcher the NPD Group.

And while the encyclopedia industry’s overall revenue in the United States is growing, sales in 2003 totaled about $300 million compared with the high of $800 million in 1989, Mr. Esposito estimated.

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