(Fox News) The Encyclopaedia Britannica -- which has been in print continuously since its beginnings in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768 -- is finally abandoning print and moving exclusively online.
The current print run of the venerable encyclopedia will be the last, the company announced Wed., March 14, as the publisher continues an evolution into digital products begun over 20 years ago -- and ends the print version after 244 years.
"It’s the oldest continuously printed reference work in the English language,” Tom Panelas, a spokesman for Encyclopaedia Britannica, told FoxNews.com. In that time the company has printed a little over seven million copies, he said.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica began exploring digital publishing in the 1970s, and created its first digital version -- likely the first digital encyclopedia ever -- for LexisNexis users in 1981. That lengthy history of online information may come as a surprise to many.
“Many people know us as the publisher of those big multivolume encyclopedias that have been a source of joy and learning since 1768. Today that encyclopedia is chiefly to be found in a multitude of digital forms that are updated daily,” the company’s website says.
“We reach a lot more people now online than we ever did before,” Panelas said. And despite the end of print, some traditions will continue, explained Jorge Zauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"The real tradition is not whether or not we print but that we bring scholarly knowledge to as many knowledge seekers as we can," Zauz told FoxNews.com. "That tradition we’re very happy to continue."
As the company switches off the presses, it faces new forms of competition, notably Wikipedia, the community-driven online encyclopedia that many have come to rely upon. Zauz acknowledged that site's prominence but cautioned that its quality might not be on a par.
"We are a very different type of knowledge base, one that is by the nature of what we do, significantly smaller than Wikipedia -- but much more reliable," he told FoxNews.com. "Right now everyone knows Google loves Wikipedia. 96 percent of the time its in the top five [search results]. It’s a pity that Britannica can’t take that position too.”
“I think that most people given the choice would prefer Britannica to any other alternative."
To mark the retirement of print, the entire britannica.com site will be available for free until March 21.
“There’s a place for well-written documents, where facts really matter, where we strive for balance," Zauz told FoxNews.com. "And the alternative is just …. different.”