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Britannica on the eve of its 250th birthday: an Encyclopedia’s metamorphosis

Erica Swenson Danowitz (Associate Professor/Reference/Instructional Librarian, Delaware County Community College, Media, Pennsylvania, USA)

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 21 August 2017




This paper aims to explore the recent history of the Encyclopedia Britannica: how its contents evolved over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, how technological changes almost led to its demise and its transformation from a print to an online source.


This paper traces Britannica’s history during most of the twentieth century to today using relevant literature. It also examines how Britannica’s editors used continuous revision to edit numerous print editions throughout most of the twentieth century. The author used both print and online versions of the Britannica to track how particular entries changed or remained the same over a 106-year span.


Although many Britannica entries did not change for decades, it still managed to update numerous encyclopedic articles in an age before computers and instant editing. Britannica persisted despite challenges to its existence that resulted from technological changes and imprudent business decisions. On the eve of its 250th birthday, Britannica has managed to survive as an online product that continues to educate new generations of researchers.


This paper examines a subject that has been explored in the past but not in recent years. Despite previous missteps and competition from Wikipedia and other online reference tools, this paper argues that Britannica still has relevance today.



Danowitz, E.S. (2017), "Britannica on the eve of its 250th birthday: an Encyclopedia’s metamorphosis", Reference Reviews, Vol. 31 No. 6, pp. 1-6.



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