No sooner did the Encyclopedia Britannica announce its intention to cease publication in print and move entirely online, than the breast-beating and garment-rending began in the press. “Encyclopedia Britannica goes obsolete,” moaned the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “What killed the Encyclopedia Britannica?,” asked a blogger at the Chicago Tribune. Over at USA Today’s BookBuzz column, the cry is “RIP Britannica” (“the leather-bound classics are no more”). Of course, these writers all go on to explain that the EB itself isn’t really dead, but the headlines shout a less-nuanced message that is reverberating everywhere, and it’s a dramatic one: the Encyclopedia Britannica as we know it — i.e., as a much-beloved print-based monument to Western civilization — is no more.
To those who believe that the Britannica is dead because it’s no longer publishing in print, I’d like to offer a small but significant correction: you’re right that it’s dead, but you’re wrong about the reason. The Britannica isn’t a victim of the obsolescence of print; it’s a victim of the ineffectiveness of portals.
Let’s dispense with the format issue quickly. I don’t imagine I’ll attract too many outraged comments by pointing out that the idea of publishing reference sources in print format is ridiculous. Print is wonderful for extended linear reading, but it’s a terrible platform for research and an even worse one for distribution. If you want to help people find discrete pieces of information, burying them in a large document that can only be searched by reading the whole thing (or by recourse to a crude index) is a terrible way to go about it. And if you want to distribute information to a large number of people, attaching it to a heavy physical object (let alone 32 such objects) is no way to do it. The days of the printed encyclopedia are over, long over, and thank heaven for that.
But the obsolescence of print as a research medium is not what has killed the Britannica. The problem Britannica faces is the one faced by all information portals, regardless of format or platform — they tend to offer too much of the wrong kind of value, and too little of the right kind.
What value proposition does Britannica offer? We think of an encyclopedia as comprehensive — offering information on any topic you can think of. (Think about what we mean when we describe a source as “encyclopedic.”) But in reality, what an encyclopedia offers is the opposite of comprehensiveness. It offers a distillation, or, more accurately, a selection: an apparently large, but in reality tiny collection of the information that is out there in the world. Even during the Gutenberg Era, the Britannica’s claim to cover “the breadth of human knowledge” was overblown; in the era of networked digital information, that claim borders on the hilarious. To begin one’s research with an encyclopedia is to start with a narrow and constricted strategy, not a broad one. This same problem applies to virtually any information portal.
People understand this instinctively, I think. That’s why pitching one’s portal to researchers by saying “Start your search for chemistry information here!” or “We offer everthing you need to know about copyright law!” isn’t usually very effective — everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a comprehensive single source for information on chemistry or copyright law, or on virtually any other topic.
So if the Britannica’s offer of breadth is (like that of any encyclopedia) a mirage, then what does it offer that its competitors, such as Wikipedia, do not? Easy: authority. “Britannica provides you with the assurance that all information is authoritative and correct,” the company tells us. And on the face of it, that sounds like a pretty solid value proposition. But here’s the problem: lots of other online sources provide information that can reasonably be expected to be correct as well, and they don’t charge you $69.95 a year (or $1,400 for the print, if you act quickly) for access. Most of our information queries aren’t terribly authority-sensitive—we often have little need of the assurance that the Britannica is selling. And if we do need really authoritative information, we’re not likely to start our research in an encyclopedia.
Unless it’s Wikipedia. Everyone criticizes Wikipedia because it’s crowdsourced, and its authority is therefore suspect. But it offers something Britannica doesn’t: a reasonable expectation of comprehensiveness, along with a reasonable expectation of correctness.
Before committing myself publicly to that statement, I decided to give it a quick test. So I selected a topic that I know something about — clawhammer banjo playing — and looked it up in both sources. Britannica has no entry for “clawhammer banjo.” So I looked up “banjo” instead, and found a 250-word entry that touches exceedingly lightly on the physical design, origins, and uses of the instrument itself. Then I looked up “clawhammer banjo” in Wikipedia. There I found a 1,500-word entry that explains the mechanics of the playing style, lists significant artists and recordings, discusses clawhammer techniques as applied to instruments other than the banjo, and even dedicates a section to the all-important clawhammer-vs.-frailing controversy. Can I trust Wikipedia’s authority implicitly? Well, the fact that I see nothing in its “clawhammer banjo” entry that contradicts the things I know on the topic does tend to increase my confidence — not only in that entry, but in the others I’ll encounter in Wikipedia down the road.
All of this is to say that Britannica’s challenge in the future is not going to be convincing people that it offers value. It’s going to be convincing people that what it offers — a very small amount of highly reliable information — is worth paying for, given that people can easily get a very large amount of reasonably reliable information for free.
This is also, incidentally, the challenge for libraries. Stay tuned for The Portal Problem, Part 2: The Plight of the Research Library.