Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What We’ve Lost With the Demise of Print Encyclopedias

As the paperless future approaches, certain sorts of publications have inevitably moved into the all-digital realm faster than others. Most of us still prefer paper when it comes to beach novels, for instance, or the cherished volumes of our personal libraries. At the other extreme, scientific journals effectively went all-digital years ago, and thanks to GPS, maps and road atlases are quickly following. Last week saw another milestone: the symbolic funeral of paper encyclopedias, with the inevitable announcement that the Encyclopedia Britannica is ceasing print publication.
Encyclopedias, along with other reference works, would seem particularly obvious candidates for digitization. Paper encyclopedias are large, heavy, and expensive ($1,395 for the final print edition of Britannica). They are nowhere near as easily and thoroughly searchable as their digital counterparts. They cannot be easily updated, still less constantly updated. And they are far more limited in size. The 2002 Britannica contained 65,000 articles and 44 million words. Wikipedia currently contains close to four million articles and over two billion words (this information comes, of course, from Wikipedia).
Yet with the disappearance of paper encyclopedias, a part of the Western intellectual tradition is disappearing as well. I am not speaking of the idea of impartial, objective, and meticulously accurate reference. There is no reason this cannot be duplicated in digital media. Even Wikipedia, despite its amateur, volunteer authors, has emerged as an increasingly important and accurate reference tool, reaping respectful commentary last month from no less an authority than William Cronon, president of the American Historical Association. And I am not speaking of the pleasures that come from the serendipitous browsing of handsome encyclopedia volumes, in which the idle flip of a finger takes one from Macaroni to Douglas MacArthur, and thence to Macao, Macbeth, and the Maccabees. The internet provides its own opportunities for serendipitous discovery.
Full piece at The New Republic.

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