There’s room for several to gloat over the Britannica

The Encyclopædia Britannica is, after 244 years, calling it quits on its print edition, and I’m sure Wikipedia is gloating, because as I recall, that was one of its goals around a decade ago.

Wired argues that Encarta did more to kill Britannica than Wikipedia. I tend to agree.

Author Tim Carmody points out that Britannica was more of a status symbol than an encyclopedia. I agree with that too. It took more time to learn to use than other print encyclopedias, so using it as a reference in your papers gave them far more cachet than using, say, World Book. Most of my teachers wouldn’t let us use World Book as a reference in our bibliographies, but they’d let us cite the Britannica.

My family never owned one. We owned a set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias when I was growing up. A local grocery store ran a promotion on them in the early 1980s, so my parents bought a set. At that time, an encyclopedia on a computer was a pipe dream. We bought a computer a couple of years later, but it stored 170K per floppy, and we only had one floppy drive. Two months’ worth of my blog posts would fill up one of those disks.

One of the selling points of the early online services was that you could access Grollier’s encyclopedia online. It lacked illustrations–we were talking plain text over 1200 bps modems–but it was much faster than flipping through paper volumes. I used them, and looked forward to the day when CD-ROM drives would be commonplace, with their promise of an encyclopedia on a single disc for less than $100. I remember doing my preliminary research for papers in high school online, reading Grollier’s articles on Quantumlink or GEnie. It saved me that first trip to the library.

By the time I was selling computers at retail, every computer came bundled with one. Most came with Encarta, but some came with Grollier’s, and IBM computers came with World Book. The in-store demos touted these multimedia encyclopedias, and they were a big selling point.

As Wired pointed out, Britannica did $650 million in revenue in 1990, when a CD-ROM drive alone still sold for what a set of Britannicas did. In 1996, when a 75-MHz Pentium computer with a CD-ROM drive, encyclopedia, and other bundled software cost about what a set of Britannicas did, the whole operation sold at bankruptcy for $135 million.

Encarta ran out of steam before Britannica did. Nobody needs encyclopedias on CD-ROM when there are encyclopedias on the Internet being continuously updated. Wikipedia killed Encarta first. Then it went after the Britannica, who now complains that the “wisdom of the crowds” is trying to replace its authoritative research.

I think there’s still room for both. Wikipedia will never have Britannica’s cachet, and academics still gleefully state that no university will accept citations from Wikipedia in research papers. That statement probably isn’t true, but truth doesn’t stop people from saying things that reinforce their firmly held beliefs, especially today. At the very least, you’ll go to Britannica for an authoritative high-level summary of whatever topic you’re researching, if it’s a topic Britannica covers. For pop-culture references and other things that Britannica considers beneath itself, there’s Wikipedia.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. My biggest problem with Wikipedia is that it doesn’t know its place in this world. I was a top-1,000 contributor, after all, until I got sick of the politics. That’s a common problem over there. It’s a pop-culture encyclopedia. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on it, but you’d never know it from the way its editors act.

Perhaps both Wikipedia and Britannica are a little too self-important for their own good.

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