March 14, 2012
Why the Death of the Britannica Print Edition Doesn’t Matter
The Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print after 244 years. Only 4,000 copies of the last print edition remain in the warehouse — thirty-two volumes that weigh 129 pounds —and you can have a set for $1395. Once the inventory is gone, you will have to go to the Web to use the venerable old Britannica.
No one is much surprised or unsettled by the news. Even the Britannica website refers to the event as nothing more than “just another historical data point.” I haven’t opened the print edition of the Britannica that takes up two full shelves in my library since I signed up for the online service years ago. Indeed, the very first electronic book I ever bought was a dictionary, the second was the Encyclopedia Britannica, and these are still the only two e-books I actually use.
The life-or-death issue for Encyclopedia Britannica — and it’s a grave issue — is Wikipedia. When I need a citation or a fact-check, I always use the Britannica because the mob-written pages of Wikipedia still carry a bad odor among journalists and scholars. You will not find Wikipedia in any of the endnotes of the books I’ve written, but you will find more than a few facts from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
But it’s also true that I visit Wikipedia every day, and often many times each day, to a get an overview of a subject or an event or personality. The same is true of every working journalist I know. Only after I’ve consulted Wikipedia do I drill down to the citable sources, sometimes including the Britannica. That’s the selling point the Britannica has always relied on: “Britannica won’t be able to be as large [as Wikipedia],” a Britannica executive told the New York Times, “but it will always be factually correct.”
Wikipedia is written by a motley crew of aficionados who care passionately about a particular subject, which both good and bad. The good thing is that Wikipedia contributors are deeply moved by the subjects about which they write, and no detail is too abstruse or too trivial to include in their entries. The bad thing, of course, is that they answer to no higher authority except “the Wiki” — that is, the nameless and faceless community of Wikipedia users who are empowered to enter the database and change what they regard as factual errors. Sometimes the Darwinian approach to fact-checking works, sometimes not. Even Wikipedia itself will sometimes issue a plea for the Wiki to do some work on one of the posted articles. My own Wikipedia entry, for example, has a few errors that no one has yet corrected, not even me!
Of course, the proposition that Wikipedia is prone to error and Encyclopedia Britannica is not is itself subject to debate. Errors are inevitable in any database, of course, and I have found errors in both sources. But the fact that the Britannica has an in-house editorial staff and a roster of distinguished contributors — and Wikipedia doesn’t — explains why the Britannica is citable and Wikipedia is not.
But the real drawback to the Britannica is its limited scope, and that explains why we will always be drawn to Wikipedia. Today I searched for the name of a man whose biography I have written — an early but mostly overlooked figure in the Jewish armed resistance to Nazi Germany — and I found him mentioned only once in the Encyclopedia Britannica database, and only in an article on another subject. Wikipedia, by contrast, has a long, detailed and illustrated article on the same person. While I haven’t cited Wikipedia in my book, I cannot cite the Enclopedia Britannica for the simple reason that there is nothing there to cite.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at books@jewishjournal.