The book-form of Encyclopaedia Britannica has been in print since it was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768. It will stop being available when the current stock runs out, the company said. The Chicago-based company will continue to offer digital versions of the encyclopedia.
Officials said the end of the printed, 32-volume set has been foreseen for some time.
"This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google," Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. President Jorge Cauz said. "This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people."
The top year for the printed encyclopedia was 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold, Cauz said. That number fell to 40,000 just six years later in 1996, he said. The company started exploring digital publishing the 1970s. The first CD-ROM version was published in 1989 and a version went online in 1994.
The final hardcover encyclopedia set is available for sale at Britannica's website for $1,395.
"The sales of printed encyclopedias have been neglible for several years," Cauz said. "We knew this was going to come."
The company plans to mark the end of the print version by making the contents of its website available free for one week starting Tuesday.
Online versions of the encyclopedia now serve more than 100 million people around the world, the company said, and are available on mobile devices. The encyclopedia has become increasingly social as well, Cauz said, because users can send comments to editors.
"A printed encyclopedia is obsolete the minute that you print it," Cauz said. "Whereas our online edition is updated continuously."
Britannica has thousands of experts contributors from around the world, including Nobel laureates and world leaders such as former President Bill Clinton and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It also has a staff of more than 100 editors.
"To me the most important message is that the printed edition was not what made Britannica," Cauz said. "The most important thing about Britannica is that Britannica is relevant and vibrant because it brings scholarly knowledge to an editorial process to as many knowledge seekers as possible."