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There have been more than 7 million sets of Encyclopedia Britannica printed and sold over the years. But that’s all over now.

After 244 years, the Chicago-based company is abandoning its printed edition for its Web-based version, reports ChicagoTribune.com

“We just decided that it was better for the brand to focus on what really the future is all about,” said Jorge Cauz Encyclopaedia Britannica’s president. “Our database is very large now, much larger than can fit in the printed edition. Our print set version is an abridged version of what we have online.”

Founded in 1768 in Scotland, Britannica has been headquartered in Chicago since 1935, when it was under the ownership of Sears. Marketed door-to-door for generations, it was a booming business that employed thousands and sold more than 100,000 sets as recently as 1990, when it earned $650 million in revenue.

Encyclopedia Britannica’s last run was produced in 2010. There are about 4,000 32-volume sets left, selling for $1,395 each on the Britannica website.

“This is probably going to be a collector’s item,” Cauz said. “This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest print runs.”

About 500,000 subscribers pay $70 per year for full online access to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Cauz says that focusing on its digital products will help Britannica compete against Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia website built and maintained by users, which went online in 2001. During one recent week, Wikipedia received more than 86 million U.S. visits, compared with about 455,000 for Britannica.com.

Britannica opened its articles to user contributions three years ago. Unlike Wikipedia, however, Britannica fact checkers fully vet each entry thoroughly and quickly, making its online database more reliable than a user-generated source.

About 30 percent of Britannica’s content is available at no cost through search engines. Hoping to drive more traffic to its site, the full database is now accessible for a one-week free trial.

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