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Reference in the Internet age

29 March 2004

There's been a sea change in the way that reference material is accessed. These days children are more at home finding information online than using books and everyone benefits from the speed and ease of access the Internet offers. This has brought about profound changes in the way reference publishers work and made it difficult to find a steady market for home reference.

Many computers now arrive with Microsoft's own reference software, Encarta, already installed, but it is still not necessarily used, as kids for whom the web is second nature prefer to use Google to find the information they want.

Britannica, founded in 1768, saw its book version sales plummet by 60% in just six years from 1990 to 1996 and is still struggling to find a future for itself. The encyclopedia industry's revenue has fallen from $800 million in 1989 to $300 million today. It's only institutions such as libraries which buy the expensive print versions. Even then, you wonder who uses them, when so many people work online, and how long these sales can exist for. The great virtue of the Internet is that it is so quick to update and so easy to keep the online version up to the minute. Britannica claims to have about 200,000 subscribers to its online version and say the encyclopedia is accessible to more than 30 million people.

It's still hard to see how you generate sales and revenue from home use of the reference material. Institutions can be charged, and may be prepared to pay through the nose if necessary. Individuals and families will not welcome either expensive access to the online material on a closed site, or a pay-per-view model. There's no getting away from the fact that keeping the information up to date is an expensive proposition and someone has to pay for it. But in an age of free access to most material on the Internet, this is an increasingly tricky idea to put across.