A moment of silence for the print version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, the world’s longest running fact compendium, which passed away today at the ripe old age of 244. I grew up in the late 1970s with a full set my parents bought, a brown-covered, gold-spined veritable library stacked on a two-tier shelf in our living room beside a desk-sized floor cabinet/stereo with a turntable and 8-track player.
But — I suspect like most of you — I haven’t laid hands on an actual tome in the venerable collection for decades. Not that I wasn’t still using Britannica, which remains available in its software and online incarnations. In fact I still do. I’ve been working on an annotative reference guide to a DC/Vertigo comic series for years, the sort of book that has a lot of footnotes, and where absolutely every reference has to be scholarship-solid. Of course that means I can only trust Britannica as far as I can trace what it’s saying to an original source. I’m in essence only using it as a jumping off point, and in recent years, I’ve started using Wikipedia, too.
Back in the early 2000s, I started buying the DVD edition of Britannica because hey, how cool was it back then to have the complete multi-volume Britannica set — tens of thousands of articles — on a single disc? Very. Except for the part where Britannica’s interface was inelegant, often lethargic and prone to weird refresh glitches as well as occasional crashes. It still (today) looks a little like something dragged forward kicking and screaming from the last century. I should know, because I still use it.
After the late 1990s DVD-based encyclopedia craze peaked (remember Encarta and Grolier?), Britannica never really evolved as a software developer. Instead, they just tweaked the software wrapper and piped in the latest updates, but even there the update process was something of a mystery, occurring just a few times a year, where online alternatives like Wikipedia were popping up with more information and, in some instances, with single articles updated dozens of times daily.
I tend to agree with my colleague Harry McCracken that Britannica’s own worst enemy was always Britannica, not Wikipedia, though Wikipedia played a pretty clear role in recent years and is one of Britannica Online’s chief problems going forward. Where Wikipedia’s info-lode is available to everyone, pro bono, Britannica guards its information closely, allowing only its editors to create or update entries. And it locks most of that information behind a paywall online (yep, I pay the annual $69.65 membership fee), dishing up partial entries but asking you to fork over for the whole enchilada. I’m assuming that’s made it the go-to choice for only a minority of online readers who believe they’re getting something more reliable in trade for cash.
But is Britannica really more reliable? A study back in 2005 by the journal Nature that involved selecting articles from both Wikipedia and Britannica and sending them off for vetting by area experts found that Wikipedia was nearly as reliable as Britannica (or, to put it another way, Britannica was nearly as error-prone as Wikipedia). Of the total checked, Britannica averaged about three mistakes per entry, while Wikipedia average about four. The takeaway: time, tradition and reputation may not beat all.
The Nature study had problems, however. For one, it was limited to 100 articles (50 from each), which is less than a fraction of a fraction of what’s available on either site (Britannica has 120,000 articles online, while Wikipedia has nearly four million). And Britannica was highly critical of Nature‘s process, which it alleged involved sending “misleading” article fragments and culling from its other publications, like its children’s encyclopedia.
“Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading,” wrote Britannica at the time. “Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.” (Nature‘s response to the charges is here.)
Here’s the deal: We live in an age of — to paraphrase Bill Moyers interviewing the late mythologist Joseph Campbell — cheap information, easily had. Want to know the circumference of Mars? Who the oldest woman alive today is? The difference between jelly and jam? It’s just a search (and, probably, a Wikipedia entry) away. But, to turn another phrase, with great speed comes even greater responsibility. Wherever we get our information from, it’s now more than ever incumbent on us to double- and triple-check it, especially if we intend to use it for anything important, be it a student essay, a scholarly book or to help us decide whether to vote for candidate X or Y. I don’t trust much at first blush, and neither should you.
So can Britannica possibly survive? I think so. In fact I hope so, because I still hold some stake in the notion that trained professionals can provide above-average service, but it’ll have to improve at doing something it’s terrible with today: selling itself to online readers. That, and if the Nature study was truly flawed, Britannica needs its marketing angle to say so (one way or another). In the end, if our best and brightest info-respositories are competing directly on the merits of accuracy, we all win.