The End of an Encyclopedic Era

Encyclopedia Britannica is not going to be available in physical form any longer, according to a news report. The physical edition is a casualty of the Internet age and of the power of Wikipedia.

Many of the comments about this announcement in The New York Times bemoan the inability to search at random through Internet encyclopedias such as Wikipedia (you can do that, browse, of course — you just can’t do it the way you do by leafing through the pages of a physical book), or of how poorly written many of the Wikipedia articles are.

These are comments on a digital version of a newspaper, by the way. Many of these readers have become used to absorbing content, and to researching, using the Internet. People use new technologies while regretting technological change and the loss of old forms.

The regretful tone of the comments about the Britannica is similar to that about the end of the printed book (not likely, though printed books will be fewer) and the poor quality of digital self-published books. This is one of those tired arguments people trot out about self-published versus traditionally published books: that publishers are the quality gatekeepers, ensuring good writing, good editing, good taste.

This is, of course, wishful thinking or downright delusional, as anyone who has browsed through bestsellers at a local bookstore can attest to: most books are poorly written, but it doesn’t mean they won’t find an audience. And self-published books are bad. Most people are bad writers.

In the same way, even if many Wikipedia articles are poorly written, the online encyclopedia serves a need that the Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t by being accessible to anyone, rather than to those who bought the volumes. And not every article in the Britannica was a gem of perfect prose, either.

People are resistant to change, even those who prefer to use new technologies: something about books keeps a sentimental hold on people.

But people, in general, are contributing more and more to the conversation about how we distribute and absorb content. This is good news for anyone who is building a platform to spread his or her ideas. That’s because everyone – even the holdouts for older forms, such as physical books – is using new forms to communicate, which is how you will be getting the message out about your ideas.

It’s a shame that the old Encyclopedia Britannica won’t be available, except perhaps at flea markets and used-book stores. But when was the last time you used it to check on something in a hurry?

Didn’t think so.

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