Monday, March 19, 2012

Hard Copy Comfort

The Encyclopedia Britannica announced last week that it will no longer be publishing a print version of their huge multi-volume encyclopedia. Their blog posted an attempt to sooth and comfort ("Change: It's Okay. Really.") those who see this as yet another omen of the imminent post-print era.

This news bookends well (no pun intended) with the discussion that my latest guest on the podcast, Katelyn Hackett, and I followed to a brief, yet unfinished, conclusion. We agreed that there remains some value to physical experience of a book, but the convenience of the technically superior eBook has a place as well.

Certainly, replacing a complete set of the Brittanica with an electronic version would save shelf space on the order of a parallel parked Winnebago, and perhaps even save you money. Their site is offering a week of a free tour of Brittanica Online, with the cost of an annual digital subscription at 70 bucks. That would save you a bundle, given that a set of the print Encyclopedia's sticker price was somewhere between $500 to $1,000 dollars. But the real question, for me at least, is whether or not a subscription to a digital Brittanica is simpley worth that much, given the much larger, more dynamic (not to mention free) Encyclopedia: Wikipedia?

The denizens of the Old Guard will make a lot of sound and fury about the defending the stalwart objectivity of the Encyclopedias written by a cabal of dedicated, well-schooled experts against a heterogeneous mob of basement-dwelling, high school dropout sectarians with a grudge and an internet connection. But, of course, it can't be that simple. Over time Wikipedia has, through the process of time and erosion, molded millions of entries on so many subjects that they could never fit in a 30 volume set. While the information within will never make for iron-clad footnotes in a graduate school dissertation, it does offer the casual knowledge-seeker a brief jolt of information (and paths to dig deeper, if they so wish). Also, there's something to be said for the temporal fix of a printed volume. Things happen, and Wikipedia can change, but your 2002 version of the Encyclopedia won't.

In addition to how the form factors work in favor of an online presence, each page on Wikipedia allows you to browse the "Discussion page" behind every entry; displaying the sometimes mundane/sometimes illuminating arguments between the page contributors and site editors about the objectivity of the information contained. From my desk, access to this (as well as the ability to join in) is invaluable. Unfortunately, with Brittanica, we never got the opportunity to sit in on their editors' meetings and take notes.

In addition to the inherent deficit of information about what Brittanica's editors chose to leave out, the very format in which each article is written influences the quality of the information within. To put it simply, you can only fit so many words in an entry. Linguist and media critic Noam Chomsky illustrates this problem of 'concision' has on knowledge:

As "gatekeepers" of knowledge, editors routinely must balance the intractable problem of what to leave in, and what to leave on the floor. Perhaps, now that Brittanica has moved online (and must now compete with the larger, more agile Wikipedia) we hungry consumers of information may benefit from this competition, and each of us can take to our role as a gatekeeper, furthering the project of the democratization of information. As someone who grew up in a world bridging the analog and digital eras, part of me mourns the death of a titan of the Old World. But, to the benefit of our civilization, the internet is no Library of Alexandria... and it can't be burnt and left a pool of ash.

1 comment:

  1. As a teenager I had a last-straw moment with the encyclopedia when my parents' 1980 printed edition gave me wrong information about the physics of sound. I would never again trust something hardcopy over something updated and digital.