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Encyclopaedia Britannica, mortally wounded by the Web and Wikipedia, is ending the production of its print edition in favor of a strictly digital strategy, the company announced Tuesday.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. president Jorge Cauz told the New York Times.

First published in 1768, Encyclopaedia Britannica has been printing hard copy reference volumes for nearly 250 years, though sales peaked in 1990, according to the Times.

The company is now currently selling its final 32-volume 2010 edition for $1,395, and supplies are limited. Moving forward, Encyclopaedia Britannica will only produce its rich reference guides for the Web and continue to create e-learning curriculum for educational institutions.

“Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now,” Cauz said. “The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

And yet, Wikipedia is now synonymous with the term encyclopedia, offering all walks of people free access to a not-always accurate, but always current treasure trove of editable articles.

The extremely thorough Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, serves as the perfect example of why Wikipedia is coming out on top. Ironically, the page could very well become the only thing our children have to remember the once illustrious Britannica by, a point lamented by VentureBeat senior editor Heather Kelly.

But the Britannica will live on in more than spirit. The company told the Times that it has 500,000 customers who pay a $70 annual fee for online and mobile access to its content.

“Today’s announcement is not about our past, but our future — and the new ways we’re serving our customers,” Cauz said.

Photo credit: Bopuc/Flickr

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