A (qualified) lament for the Britannica

by abbamoses

Another victory for digital media: the Encyclopedia Britannica will not be printing another edition. Only their online version and some subsidiary publications will continue.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. My reflexive response is to sigh “Another good thing, done gone on.” But I’m very much part of the process that ended the print edition: we have a set of Britannicas on our shelves (bought at a yard sale years ago), and we hardly ever touch them any more. Instead we turn to Wikipedia.

When I read about the Britannica, I briefly wondered whether I should Do the Right Thing and subscribe to their online edition. As an experiment I looked up a couple of items that I’d recently looked up on Wikipedia. In all cases the Wikipedia article was more thorough and, as far as I could tell, at least as accurate. Admittedly the articles were a bit off the beaten path (one was about Yasujiro Ozu), but it made wonder what I’d be getting for my money with the Britannica.

So perhaps the Britannica, venerable as it is, has just been superseded.

The collaborative nature of Wikipedia is what makes it so great, but I’ve found some cases that show the need for caution. I once looked up the Orthodox “Tollhouse” theory of the afterlife on two separate occasions, and found two substantially different articles with two very different slants. Presumably different partisans in this contested subject had managed to seize the controls temporarily.

But then, I think we always need to be careful about any “authoritative” source; the Britannica tends to enshrine the opinions of the authorities who write its articles.

I suspect, too, that the Tollhouse example is an extreme case: the subject is both hotly contested and obscure. I doubt that the Tollhouse entry is as closely monitored (if it’s monitored at all) as, say, an article on the American Civil War or the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

So while the news about the Britannica gives me a wistful, mono no aware feeling, I have to admit that the feeling is mostly empty sentiment.

(…and, of course, the mono no aware link in this post is to Wikipedia.)