Friday, March 16, 2012

Rule Britannica

Times change--but not too much. The other day, it was announced that there would no longer be a printed edition of the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, although it will continue to exist, as it has since 1994, as a subscription-based online encyclopedia. So the days of the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, like the Fuller Brush man (remember that?), are likely gone forever. The reasons for its demise in print are pretty obvious--but are not what you may think. As Wired kind of points out, it wasn't Wikipedia that killed Britannica, although it didn't help. Actually, it was the computer and the Internet. Or, more specifically, the search engine.

I personally have never owned an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but in the early 1990s when I worked as research assistant to Marilyn vos Savant, we had a set in the office. And, to be honest, it was not user-friendly. Back then we had yet to spoiled by easy access to things on the Internet (although I've been online since 1992, for many years there really wasn't much of anything there), but even so finding specific information in the many editions of Britannica was not easy, as I always found the master index a bit wanting. Sure, browsing through Britannica (or "surfing," perhaps) was great, and often once came across interesting things serendipitously (such as the fact that Queen Victoria had a bustle that would play "God Save the Queen" when she sat down; it's not easy to forget things like that!), but finding specific things was not an easy task. Another problem I always had with Britannica was that it often provided more information than was really required, so you could find highly technical treatises on electrostatics, but finding a simple definition of "static electricity" was a challenge.

The advent of the search engine, whether it be online or incorporated into any electronic content, was a tremendous boon, such that I suspect we take it for granted today. I recall that in the nascent Web, Google was far from the first. Before 1999 (when Google was founded), there were a slew of them (Webcrawler, Alta Vista, and of course Yahoo!; and remember Ask Jeeves, where you asked a fictional butler to search for things for you, adding a layer of redundancy to the whole process? Instead of Ask Jeeves, I think an Ask Bertie Wooster would have been more entertaining...).

I love printed books, and even though I write a lot about e-books, and read them on occasion, I'm still not totally wild about them. But reference books like encyclopedias are ill-served by being in print; I think they make far more sense as electronic resources, where searching is far more effective. After all, you don't read the encyclopedia for pleasure (well, I used to), but to find specific information. That is best handled electronically. (And Britannica has realized this, releasing its first CD-ROM edition in 1989.)

As for the impact of Wikipedia, well, it's not been unsubstantial. And despite its reputation, a prominent study conducted by Nature back in 2005 found that Wikipedia was actually about as accurate, if not slightly more so, than Britannica. Wikipedia has become the de facto research tool and even in my Masters Program, professors and students alike (many of them professional scientists) have no qualms about citing Wikipedia entries.

It's tempting to think that it's that fact that Wikipedia is free that accounts for its popularity and for the demise of Britannica, and no doubt that is part of it (but actually Britannica went bankrupt in 1996, before there even was a Wikipedia--or even a Google). But even if Wikipedia existed as a free print edition (which would be impossible; someone actually did calculate--back in 2007--how many pages that would take and it would be the size of an entire library), it still would likely not be even as remotely useful as the electronic version, especially in this day of mobile Internet. I personally can vouch for how many bar bets or other inquiries are settled in moments thanks to an iPhone and Wikipedia. (Or IMDb, as the case may be...) In fact, as I write this, I am on Amtrak using my iPad (and WiFi on Amtrak, which is free, but all data is 10-15 minutes late). I have been using said iPad during this journey to look up the history of MIT on Wikipedia. Just think if I had to haul around a set of encyclopedias...

And why am I looking up the history of MIT? Because I just started reading The Technologists by Matthew Pearl--in print. See? There are some books I still prefer to have in printed form.

No comments: