Rachel del Valle | Knowledge can no longer be leather-bound
Duly Noted | It’s been a long time coming for the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’
March 18, 2012, 11:29 pm·
Rachel del Valle
After almost 250 years of publication, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is no more. The authoritative reference company announced this week that they are making the digital switch.
On the company website, “Encyclopaedia Britannica – The Final Print Edition,” is being advertised like a summer blockbuster. “Supplies are limited; get yours before it is too late!” There are “44 million words covering the breadth of human knowledge — more than any other print encyclopedia!”
Until recently, the going rate for a stately 32-volume collection was $1395, which bought you some cultural prestige and a scholarly background for Skyping. An annual online subscription — now the only way to get a piece of the erudite action — is about $70.
Before yesterday, I’d never had personal contact with an Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was a little sheepish when I went to see them in the reserved section of Van Pelt. I didn’t want to have to be the one to break the news. You guys are obsolete. I’m really sorry. You can all go home now.
In elementary school, instead of a hulking set of A-Z books, I had a CD-ROM, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000, which featured a perfectly compact body of information. There was an illustration of Leonardo Da Vinci and some nondescript marine animal on the cover. It was just enough for pre-teen assignments.
Encarta expanded to the internet once I got to high school, but by then my classmates and I had been bitten by the Wikipedia bug. In 2009, Microsoft shut down the platform entirely.
Encyclopaedia Britannica’s online shift exemplifies the changing nature of information in our era. Facts live differently on the internet. Information is infinite and changeable online — especially with Wikipedia. Entries are not bound by leather. They’re not bound by anything.
On the internet, you can find more information about Batman than John F. Kennedy. (The former has about 350 million hits as compared to the latter, with roughly 60 million on Google). Unlike in books, nothing is too insignificant for the internet. There’s enough room for anything and everything. Wikipedia has over three million entries. The online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica has about 120,000.
Besides breadth, the key distinction between Wikipedia and its more expertly minded competitors is timeliness. To match the millions of topics Wikipedia covers, are millions of people who can keep those entries up to date.
Some would argue that the professional-level quality of writing and research can’t be matched by ordinary people. And that’s true. Wikipedia doesn’t aim to be the definitive source of knowledge in the universe. But it’s a good place to start.
I’m not advocating that you consult Wikipedia and only Wikipedia to write a 15-page research paper — unless it’s on creatures in Star Wars, because there’s a pretty extensive entry on that. But for a surface-level sense of something, say, Claude Debussy or A Streetcar Named Desire, Wikipedia is the place to go.
You may ask, is it really necessary to have a 6700-word entry on Bugs Bunny?
To which I answer, of course it’s not necessary. But does that make it any less great?
Who am I, who is anyone, to decide what’s too trivial to be included in a collection of information like Wikipedia that claims to encompass everything?
In reflecting on the loss of the reference standard, many of the older generation have mused on childhood memories of flipping through Encyclopaedia Britannica’s thousands of pages, absorbing bits of alphabetized factoids.
I have memories like that, too. They just don’t exist in black and white with gilded spines. They exist online. You can get just as lost in Wikipedia as you can get in any definitive reference book. It’s not quite as romantic, but the sentiment is the same. Knowledge is knowledge. And with the internet, there are no limits to it.
I love the way Wikipedia caters to my itch to procrastinate and allows me to explore. I can simultaneously distract, entertain and educate myself by clicking from link to link, idea to idea. I might have a paper to write about Edith Wharton, but oh, look, there’s a hyperlink to Indiana Jones under “In Popular Culture.”
In the middle of writing this column, I had a dip into writer’s block that led me from “Leonardo Di Caprio” to “Romeo Juliet” to “Colonia del Valle,” a neighborhood in Mexico City that shares my last name that I never knew existed.
In 30 seconds, I learned something without even trying. And, honestly, how cool is that?
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.