Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Britannica Gives Up The Printed Encyclopedia


So, Encyclopedia Britannica sees the writing on the wall and stops publishing a printed version. I'm not surprised, and neither is, I suspect, anyone else. Searchable collections of facts is exactly the kind of thing that an online resource does very well and a paper version does badly.

The printed encyclopedia is limited by the practical size of the books, by the lack of portability, by the lousy search interface (good luck finding it if you don't know the name) and by the lack of updates. It is expensive, cumbersome to use, rarely there when you need it, and obsolete before it even leaves the printing press. There is no question that abandoning the printed version is the right decision.

A better question, I think, is if this kind of encyclopedia has any future, online or not. They are getting badly mauled by Wikipedia, true, but even more by the net at large. If you want to know about, say, the Minamata disaster then you're not going to You search Wikipedia or simply google for it and check the promising links off the first couple of pages. If that happens to include a Britannica link then fine, but usually it does not.

People like to argue that a tightly curated resource like this is far better than, say Wikipedia — to say nothing of the net at large — but the truth is, the rate of errors is about the same. Wikipedia also tends to be far more comprehensive, both in breadth of subjects and depth of coverage, and with timely updates. And even Wikipedia pales compared to the resources of the whole net.

Yes, you do need to read Wikipedia critically, and the wide internet even more so. The world is full of pranksters, trolls and people with an axe to grind. But you need to read an encyclopedia with the same critical eye. You can't trust them blindly any more than you can trust any one resource. And no, you can't normally cite Wikipedia in a scholarly work, but then, neither can you cite Britannica.

Compare "Minamata disease" for Wikipedia and Britannica. Note the difference in the amount of detail they give you. Also note that Wikipedia has detailed references to external resources — scholarly works as well as general media, on-line and off — for the facts in the story, as well as extensive cross linking to related aspects of this item. If you want to learn about this disaster, there is no doubt which is the better starting point. And if Britannica has fewer errors here it is only because it has almost no information there to get wrong in the first place.

And if you leave the neat Wikipedia compound and venture out into the net at large, you'll find a huge trove of information. Tens of thousands of images, articles, film clips and eye-witness accounts; thousands of books and research papers about the medical, environmental, biological, chemistry, nursing, political, societal, cultural, legal, economic and mental health aspects of the disaster; and more opinionated writing about anything related to it than you can shake a very long stick at.

It is simply not possible for Britannica or any single resource to match this array of content. Wikipedia makes itself very useful by adding a large collection of links to other resources about every aspect of the story. But Britannica does not; its article just sits there, isolated and kept apart from the great, messy web of information surrounding it. It gives you no help in finding more and better resources, and thus gives you little reason to go there the first place.

I wonder how long Britannica can stay afloat on dwindling institutional subscriptions and advertising sales. I wonder if anyone will notice when they no longer do.


  1. I heard Bertrand Russel had a chest made specifically for the EB so he could bring it with him when he traveled. Times they are a-changing...

  2. A time when you could actually travel with several large pieces of luggage without going broke, insane or both.


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