Today marks the end of another era, the onward and outward march of the digital world has claimed perhaps its most iconic victim with today’s announcement that Encyclopaedia Britannica will go out of print. This is a bittersweet thing to see, because while the technology lover in me sees this as merely the predictable result of the advance of digital resources like Wikipedia (and before that Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopaedia), the more traditional, book loving and nostalgic side of me sees this as a tragedy of near gargantuan proportion.
Why do I see this as such a bad thing you might ask? It has tremendous advantages, when people don’t have the option of an out of date book they’ll look up their questions on the up-to-date Wikipedia and Online Britannica articles… Well yes they might do, but there are good reasons that university lecturers penalise students for citing Wikipedia (indeed one of these being the changability) and insist instead upon printed (or unchanging) sources of information. But there’s a far greater worry for me, because just as some people don’t have enough food to eat or insufficient money for healthcare*, some do not have internet access, neither do all public libraries, so where then does the intrigued school child go to learn something new when there’s no web access, and no encyclopaedia on the shelves?
The printed Encyclopaedia Britannica provides something else that perhaps you hadn’t thought of…? The New York Times or The Times provide the US and UK’s respective “papers of record” – a historical record of public opinion, political leanings, social conventions etc. that sociologists find so useful, The Encyclopaedia Britannica does the same thing for the state of knowledge, take plate tectonics for example, just 70 years ago its predecessor (Continental Drift) was a whacky, outsider’s theory with no mechanism and no hope. Now plate tectonics is a paradigm, something went from one extreme of knowledge to the other in under 40 years, something recorded in a wonderful way in the pages of successive Encyclopaedias Britannica. With the modern, digital, changeability of knowledge such changes, shifts and about-faces would be easy to lose and drift forgotten from the collective consciousness of humanity. We’re only clever from what we learn from our errors and mis-steps, but what happens when they’re forgotten.
This is of course not to mention that great and good though the internet is, it is still (even today) relatively fragile. Or for that matter the oft repeated (and in my view perfectly valid) argument about the feeling and atmosphere of the printed word over a cold, electronic LCD screen, but this is the nostalgia talking.
Speaking of nostalgia, I remember when I was about 6 years of age, we had a computer in the house (admittedly rare for the time) but no access to online sources of information – did they even exist in 1995/6? But you would very rarely see me playing on the games, using the creative software and such – even though I was perfectly capable and savvy enough at the time… I would be spending hours looking through the various encyclopaedias that we had in the house, and never once was I disappointed with what I found in the pages of the encyclopaedias. There’s just something to be said for picking up a book, flicking trough and picking a page at random, and learning something totally new… Why do you think that the “Random Article” feature on Wikipedia is so cool!
I’m willing to make a prediction here; that in 10 years time the demand for the printed encyclopaedia will be such that someone will have resurrected it, possibly even the publishers of Britannica with a decadal “Special Edition”. I would almost be willing to bet on that.
*(in the US and quite possibly soon the UK unless our government grows a collective brain)