Bertelsmann did not resort to euphemism this week when it announced the end of the Brockhaus encyclopedia brand. Brockhaus had been publishing reference books for two centuries when the media group bought it in 2008. The online version of the German-language encyclopedia will be updated for six years, and licensing the name is possible, but one hears none of the usual cant about “taking advantage of synergies”. The internet has finished off Brockhaus altogether. It may not be the end of learning, but it is the end of a certain idea of learning.

The product is not to blame. It never stopped improving. The last (21st) edition, published in 2005, has 30 volumes, 24,500 pages and 300,000 entries. It is snappily written and elegantly designed. Similarly, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Grand Robert dictionary in France abandoned books for computerisation even while their quality was still high. (Both are going digital concerns.) Brockhaus, like Britannica, had its commercial heyday in the 1990s. It is one of the poignancies of this period of transition: many institutions are kicked into the ash bin of history just as they reach their apotheosis. In the old industrial world, things were darkest before the dawn. In the globalised cyber economy, they are brightest before the apocalypse.

Technological advances made such leaps in quality possible, but customers do not want the same things from technology as publishers. Customers often choose to pocket its fruits in the form of cheapness not quality. This tendency wrongfooted even Microsoft. Encarta, its onscreen encyclopedia, drove down sales of printed ones when it came out in 1993 but was itself discontinued four years ago.

What Germans like is Wikipedia. The German-language service receives 31m hits a day. It is Wikipedia’s second-largest encyclopedia by language (1,595,000 articles), behind English (4,256,000) and just ahead of Dutch (1,582,000).

Readers abandoned traditional reference books with stunning suddenness. When Bertelsmann bought Brockhaus, the encyclopedia had reportedly sold only about one-fifth of its print run of 50,000. This abandonment is an embarrassment to those who said “there will always be people who prefer the printed page”. The idea that the publishers could have adjusted to the erosion of their business model had they only been more “hip” to information technology is nonsense, too. It is like arguing that, if stagecoach companies had managed to power their horses with steam, they could have prevented the rise of the railroads.

Something has come to an end here but what? Defenders of dead-tree books often sound like defenders of the gold standard. Both argue that the object in question must have a physical aspect, and both sound illogical and fetishistic. On the other hand, bad things tend to happen when you ignore their argument altogether. Information-age pundits, meanwhile, try to reassure us that some Newtonian law of conservation is at work in cultural matters. Whatever dies in the bricks-and-mortar realm must blossom anew in another. That is a superstition.

The case has been made that the migration of reference guides to the web has brought no losses whatsoever. In 2007, Germany’s newsweekly Der Stern compared the online Brockhaus encyclopedia with Wikipedia, judging 50 entries on accuracy, up-to-dateness, completeness and clarity. It concluded that Wikipedia was the better of the two on 43 of 50 terms. But the conclusion is deceptive. Much of the online open encyclopedia’s advantage came on up-to-dateness – Brockhaus had not noted that Doris Lessing had recently won the Nobel or that Luciano Pavarotti had just died. Brockhaus’s great strength was the clarity of its entries; they are to the point. Indeed, clarity is the weak spot of crowd-sourced encyclopedias. Wikipedia entries are written by people who desperately want to write them. Even if its contributors’ biases cancel one another out, they tend to do so in a long-winded way.

Stopping the presses on the Brockhaus is different from stopping the presses on the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The 250-year era of western encyclopedia-making appears to be ending. For much of that era, Germany was the pre-eminent nation for systematic amassing of knowledge. Now, for the first time in centuries, it will not be producing a major encyclopedia. An encyclopedia has something in common with a nuclear deterrent – a country that has one is a different kind of country from one that does not. It is unfair to call this an abdication, since there is no reason to believe there was any choice. But the end of Brockhaus is a critical loss of intellectual and cultural infrastructure, consigning Germany to the company of those nations with no word for Bildungsbürgertum.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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