The box art for the PC version of Portal.
The box art for the PC version of Portal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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56 Thoughts on "The Portal Problem, Part 1: The Plight of the Britannica"

Very true. I think the real killer of Britannica is that it falls in the middle of an “authority uncanny valley”. However much it (or any encyclopaedia) claims to be authoritative, we all know that in the end you need to go back to primary sources. Britannica is not authoritative enough for that, so it serves really as a discovery tool for those primary sources. But Wikipedia also does that — and does it better, since it’s much more comprehensive and hugely better references, not to mention up to date. The fact that Britannica is somewhat more authoritative than Wikipedia doesn’t really buy it anything.

So I fear that its future online is doomed as well as in print.

  • Mike Taylor
  • Mar 22, 2012, 7:03 AM

That the SSP (mission: ‘to advance scholarly publishing and communication’) is jumping on the (supposed) grave of Britannica with so much glee strikes me as a rather contrary POV. Indeed, one might say that ‘offering a small amount of highly reliable information’ is essentially a pretty solid value proposition from a scholarly perspective.

  • rob virkar-yates
  • Mar 22, 2012, 8:09 AM

We are not SSP. We are independent bloggers who happen to be members of SSP, and run the official blog of SSP as independent bloggers. SSP doesn’t take stands on things like this, but encourages discussion, networking, and sharing of ideas and opinions. This post is one person’s point of view, and the goal is to start a discussion. Do you think he’s wrong? Tell us why.

I think this post was about how the strategy of portals like Britannica is problematic in today’s world. It wasn’t “jumping on the grave” by any means. But if you think Britannica’s strategy is likely to work, let’s discuss.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 8:11 AM

I’m not a member of SSP, nor am I “jumping on the grave of Brittanica,” much less doing so gleefully.

Rob, you may be right that offering a small amount of highly reliable information is a “pretty solid value proposition from a scholarly perspective.” But Brittanica won’t survive unless it’s also a pretty solid value proposition from a business perspective, and that’s the issue I’ve tried to address in this piece.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 9:09 AM

ah, adding value. a lost art.

  • meg white
  • Mar 22, 2012, 10:28 AM

Actually, there are places, such as libraries and their products and services where patrons can find authoritative information by clicking around the Internet just as easily as going to Wikipedia, that is, if they know where to look.

When doing research however, any good researcher will want to triangulate the information they find in their research and yes, you can go to Wikipedia and find good information but when it comes to the current establishment of research, the expectation is that you referred to authoritative information or that you triangulated information that you found in multiple sources to ensure it is ultimately authoritative and accurate. Wikipedia is not yet vetted to assume such a status in serious research…even though we all go there initially. I personally do use encyclopedias and dictionaries when I begin a research project (say for a class or professionally) to help me get a sense of the accepted definitions of things and concepts or even to have a different definition than I find in other unauthoritative or cultural sources, I then may go to Wikipedia or even just Google it but will always return to more authoritative and peer-reviewed sources in the end. Another interesting phenomena is when people are searching for health information online. They do sometimes accept information about a health condition from someone who has experienced it but other than speaking with their doctor or pharmacist, they want to find authoritative health information they can trust. I might go to a site like Patients Like Me or Google or Wiki first but in the end I want the authoritative information for something that affects my health. Just my personal opinions.

  • Kerry
  • Mar 22, 2012, 10:29 AM

Kerry, you’re right of course that serious researchers will use and cite multiple sources in the course of their work, and will put a relatively high premium on authoritativeness. But the Britannica’s market isn’t serious researchers–it’s casual information-seekers. That’s why it can’t compete effectively with a cheaper (i.e. free), far more comprehensive, and acceptably reliable alternative like Wikipedia, let alone with the open web.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 10:40 AM

An added value of portals, especially the really good ones and touched on in the comment by Kerry, is that they can provide context for someone approaching a topic for the first time.

  • Steven
  • Mar 22, 2012, 11:04 AM

“…everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a comprehensive single source for information on chemistry or copyright law…”

I wish this were the case. I would offer a slight amendment: “everyone in the information industry knows…” Our patrons certainly don’t know this, worse, I’m not convinced they care (most of the time).

The issue you touch on with “reasonable expectation” is what I see in our patrons all the time – the “good enough” or “satisficing” argument: they don’t value authority or comprehensiveness except in very narrow, almost vanishingly uncommon circumstances. That drives the cost per instance of the high-quality information need up to the point where spending $4,000+ each per year on a library system becomes a questionable value proposition. If you only really need the high-quality resources and assistance of a research library once or twice a year (maybe less for some undergrads over their four years), what could you buy from a broker for amount? Or half that amount if you spent half as much on a “reasonable expectation”-based library?

[And yes, this ideas runs smack into the first-copy-cost problem.]

  • smatheson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 11:22 AM

Interesting: I asserted that “everyone knows there’s no such thing as a comprehensive single source for information” on a specific subject, and you’re disagreeing by pointing out that library patrons are willing to settle for “good enough” and that they don’t place a sufficiently high value on “authority or comprehensiveness.” Isn’t that tendency a symptom of the very dynamic I’m describing? In other words, isn’t patrons’ tendency to settle for “good enough” a reflection of the fact that they believe reasonably reliable information can come from any number of sources?

I don’t really follow your economic argument, but I want to emphasize, again, that I’m not making an argument here about what patrons (or information seekers generally) should or shouldn’t do; I’m making an argument about the economic viability of a product like the EB in light of the current information environment and the general tendencies of people in search of information. I should also point out again that the EB is not a scholarly tool; it’s a popular tool. The behavior of research library patrons is pretty much irrelevant to the future of the EB.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 1:33 PM

I’d argue that one reason Wikipedia has become so central is that it is so central 😉 — poised at the sweet spot between the casual information seeker and the serious researcher. Everybody recognizes how useful Wikipedia is when you want to just “get a bead on something,” and often that’s all that’s needed. But because it is almost always loaded with links and citations to more comprehensive and authoritative resources, it’s really an ideal jumping-off point when serious, reliable information is required. I find that I often wind up relying on Wikipedia when I am trying to track down some obscure technical issue or spec — especially when I know there must _be_ such a technical issue or spec, but I don’t remember exactly what it’s called. Serious Google digging might be required, and might not be fruitful. Two minutes with Wikipedia will almost always lead me to what I’m looking for, and will probably also provide me some context and perspective (and some other resources I might not even have known to look for). Pretty hard to beat.

  • Bill Kasdorf @BillKasdorf
  • Mar 22, 2012, 11:59 AM

Exactly. We librarians are always complaining about how students rely on Wikipedia for reliable information about research topics. But when I talk with students about Wikipedia, the phrase I hear them use over and over is “jumping-off point.” They see Wikipedia as a place to go to find, for example, links to official websites, links to articles on the topic from newspapers of record, etc. I’m not saying that no one relies on Wikipedia content itself — only that in my experience, users of Wikipedia (even the young and inexperienced ones that worry us most) seem generally to be pretty sophisticated about how they go about using it.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 7:03 PM

A successful portal must meet two requirements of searching: recall and precision. “Comprehensive” portals might do a wonderful job with recall but fail utterly on precision. A highly focused portal (e.g. one with high precision regarding a topic) may still offer great value. This is exactly why some small bookstores have survived: they tailor their offerings to what their customers are looking for.

  • Ken Lanfear
  • Mar 22, 2012, 12:59 PM

Ken, I think we’re using the word “successful” in two different ways. You’re describing (accurately, I think) what a portal must do well in order to “succeed” at its intended purpose. But for a portal to “succeed” in the marketplace, it has to do more than offer solid value by functioning well — it has to offer a kind of value that the marketplace is willing to support. A portal can be very successful in the sense you describe, and still go out of business because it wasn’t successful at providing the kind of value that its intended market actually wants. That, I think, is going to be the challenge going forward for the Britannica.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 7:07 PM

I’m not so sure I can agree that there is no such thing as a comprehensive single source for subjects like copyright, where the stature of NIMMER ON COPYRIGHT as a multi-volume, constantly updated reference work is such that no single secondary source is more often cited in judicial cases than this one. It is at least prima inter pares in the field. On another subject I’m very familiar with, I’d say that the open-access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has come to have that authoritative status as the single most valuable reference work where anyone doing serious research in the field will consult. Wikipedia is so far behind the Stanford Encyclopedia in reliability. comprehensiveness, and depth that I wouldn’t advise anyone to start with Wikipedia for questions about philosophy.

I think you are more on the right track in questioning what a more general resource like EB has to offer as a value proposition in our current era, given the “satisficing” nature of Wikipedia and the existence of more authoritative and richer specialized works like the Stanford Encyclopedia or NIMMER ON COPYRIGHT.

Since one of your fellow bloggers, Joe Esposito, was CEO of EB when it first went online, I hope he will offer his perspective on the questions you raise.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 22, 2012, 3:16 PM

Sandy, a resource can easily be the single best on its topic and still not be the only resource one needs. Nimmer may be cited more than any other reference work on the topic of copyright law, but are you saying that Nimmer is the only resource a copyright lawyer would need in order to do his or her job? If I were a philosophy professor, could I throw away all my other philosophy texts now that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is available for free online?

The question isn’t whether these are better or worse than Wikipedia. Some sources will be better, and some will be worse. The question is whether any single source can claim to be the only one you need on a given topic. (And then the question is, do people want such a single comprehensive source badly enough to pay cash for access to it? The Stanford Encyclopedia, at least, is no help in answering that question.)

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 7:12 PM

Well, of course not the only source, but you were talking about reference books, and I’d venture to say that NIMMER ON COPYRIGHT serves this purpose for copyright lawyers, who naturally would also consult actual case law and articles in law reviews as well as legal documents like treaties and the like. But I can’t think of another general copyright reference work that would be needed. Ditto for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in that field.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 22, 2012, 7:30 PM

Actually, Sandy, you were the one talking about reference books. I was responding to this:

I’m not so sure I can agree that there is no such thing as a comprehensive single source for subjects like copyright…

You then went on to talk about reference books, and argued that Nimmer and the SEP are examples of reference books that obviate all others. But my argument is not about reference books specifically; it’s about information portals generally. (I used the Britannica as an example of a portal because it claims, ridiculously, to contain “the breadth of human knowledge,” not because it’s a reference book.)

My point isn’t that a researcher or practitioner will always need a variety of reference books. It’s that a researcher or practitioner will always need more than one resource. Nimmer may be the only reference book a copyright attorney needs, but it’s not “a comprehensive single source” for copyright law (or, as I put it in my posting, “everything you need to know about copyright law”). Ditto the SEP for a philosopher; the SEP may obviate the Oxford Companion, but it doesn’t come close to offering “everything you need to know about philosophy.” This is one of the great challenges for anyone who tries to sell access to an information portal: no one is going to believe that your portal is a genuinely comprehensive source on its subject, for the simple reason that there’s really no way it can be.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 22, 2012, 9:11 PM

If that was your argument, then how could anyone disagree with it? No single source of information can provide everything any researcher, or anyone else for that matter, needs–including Wikipedia or the entire Library of Congress. But I don’t see what could possibly be insightful about this proposition; it is virtually a tautology. What, exactly, is your point?

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 23, 2012, 1:30 AM

Sandy, you’re asking the wrong question. The right question would be: if you agree that the point I made above is obviously true, then why did you pluck it out of the middle of my posting and waste so much of our time arguing over it?

Obviously (or maybe not), the argument I’m making in my posting is not that there’s no such thing as a single comprehensive source. That fact is a trivially obvious one that I invoked in support of my actual argument, which is that the Britannica has a dim future because, in fact, it presents itself as such a source–a portal to the “the breadth of the world’s knowledge”–in a sea of other options that are more comprehensive, reasonably reliable, and free. Britannica’s explicit selling points are its comprehensiveness (which is illusory, as you and I now have now painfully established) and its authority (which, I predict, is not going to be of sufficiently high value to attract many paying customers).

You might want to go back and read the whole posting. I don’t make any great claims for its insight, but I do think (or at least I used to think) that I made my points fairly clearly.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 23, 2012, 8:01 AM

Actually, I think the more interesting point is whether any reference book is good enough to meet the needs of any particular audience, whether that audience be more general (like the audience for EB) or more specialist (like the audience for NIMMER ON COPYRIGHT or the Stanford Encyclopedia). You made a good argument, I thought, for questioning whether EB could rightfully claim to serve as a single reliable reference for its targeted audience, and I would agree that for a general audience these days probably no single portal could be adequate. Whether for more specialized fields a reference work could have sufficient stature and breadth to be that sole source (as a reference work, not as a sole source for everything) is, I believe, a more open and arguable question, and the answer would of course vary by field. I think the two reference works I cited for copyright law and philosophy have at least a prima facie case to be made for their sufficiency. Perhaps people familiar with other specialized fields could provide comparable examples for those fields.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 23, 2012, 2:29 PM

Perhaps the value lies in authoritative selection, just as with journals. That is, this is what it is important to know about. Many people seek that guidance. It is also what schools do.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 22, 2012, 4:39 PM

Rick, let me put it another way, namely that you may be confusing breadth with depth. If they cover all the major branches of knowledge then their breadth claim might be correct. It is a matter of best summarizing all we know in 1000 pages, an interesting challenge. As such it is not a tool for researchers, but for the general public, which is their target customer. Wikipedia, precisely because of it’s massive scope, completely fails in this regard.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 23, 2012, 9:25 AM

No, I’m definitely clear on the difference between depth and breadth. In my view, the Britannica fails on both counts. I gave one small example of that failure: in the case of “clawhammer banjo,” the Britannica’s coverage is nonexistent (a failing of breadth), and its coverage of “banjo” is shallow (a failing of depth). Now, you may respond that clawhammer banjo isn’t a “major branch of knowledge.” Fair enough. But now you’re not arguing for the Britannica’s comprehensivenes; you’re arguing that its lack of comprehensiveness isn’t that important, or at least that it’s comprehensive enough. Maybe you’re right. Ultimately, the marketplace will decide that question.

As for Wikipedia: are you saying that Wikipedia a) fails as a tool for the general public, b) precisely because of its massive scope? Each of those statements is absurd on its face, which leads me to suspect that I’m not reading you correctly.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 23, 2012, 9:48 AM

Not including clawhammer banjo (which I also play) is not a failure of breadth, as the term breadth is normally used, or at least as I am using it. The major branch of knowledge here is music, which they cover. Please consider my operational definition. You have just 1000 pages in which to summarize all of human knowledge. Breadth means no major topic is left out, and EB may well achieve that goal. The only way it could get better is to replace given sentences with other sentences.

If by comprehensive you mean having a million pages, that is irrelevant to the 1000 page design challenge. Knowledge can be represented as a tree structure, the issue tree to be exact. The most general concepts (like music) are explained at the top, and detail increases with each level. The number of facts (and hence sentences) increases exponentially with level of detail. The banjo is found several levels down under music and clawhammer style is several levels down within the banjo section. There are probably trillions of sentences all told.

Breadth means including everything important down to a given level. Depth means how many levels one goes down. Comprehensive either means including everything to a given depth, or including everything under a given topic to a given depth, or including everything, that is all of human knowledge, which is not physically possible.

In short, it is entirely possible that EB has excellent coverage of breadth, given its size. Selection is the value.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 23, 2012, 10:55 AM

David, you and I are indeed using different definitions of “breadth.” I think your definition is quite idiosyncratic and I’m not at all sure that it’s the one “normally used,” but you are of course welcome to it. I do concede that there are different ways of thinking about breadth — if you consider “clawhammer banjo” and “banjo” as separate topics (as I do, one being a performance practice and the other a physical object), then the lack of “clawhammer” would count against a reference source’s breadth; if you count one only as a subtopic of the other (as you do) then the lack of “clawhammer” would count against its depth.

In any case, I think a tree-structure outline of the EB would reveal it to be both less deep and less broad than Wikipedia, according to both of our definitions. My guess is that there are whole branches of human endeavor covered in Wikipedia that are not covered in the EB. It would be interesting (if hugely time-consuming) to create and compare such outlines. I wonder if anyone has done it.

As for whether “selection is the value”: I think it would be more accurate to say that “selection is a value proposition.” Whether the selection service is valuable and how valuable it is will depend on the needs and desires of the product’s intended audience. Sellers of a product (like the EB) don’t get to decide what it’s worth; they only get to propose what they believe it’s worth, and hope that their customers agree.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 23, 2012, 5:44 PM

Rick, I think I am fairly close to the ordinary concept of breadth of knowledge, versus depth, in constructing my model. Knowledge of physics and chemistry is broader than knowledge physics alone. So breadth means knowing about more topics, while depth means knowing more about a specific topic. One cannot do both. Claw hammer banjo is a very specific topic, one that requires knowledge of banjos. If you have an alternative model of the structure of knowledge I would love to see it, as I am always looking for one.

In any case my point is that the EB may have a special value precisely because of it’s high level selection of sentences. You seem not to have addressed this.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 23, 2012, 6:26 PM

Tell you what. In the interest of not belaboring this topic further, how about if I agree to change my “clawhammer banjo/banjo” example to “clawhammer banjo/plectrum banjo”? Then we’ll both agree that I’m talking about breadth, right? My assessment of the EB’s relative weakness compared to Wikipedia will remain the same, because the EB contains no discussion of either banjo style (Wikipedia covers both, thus scoring higher on breadth) and the EB treats banjos generally very shallowly (while Wikipedia treats banjos in significant detail, thus scoring higher on depth).

In any case my point is that the EB may have a special value precisely because of it’s high level selection of sentences. You seem not to have addressed this.

Are you suggesting, then, that the EB may have special value because it deals with its topics at a relatively high level of generality? In other words, that its lack of depth is itself a virtue?

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 23, 2012, 8:00 PM

No Rick, sorry but you have absolutely missed my point and failed to understand the quantitative model of knowledge that I have offered to support it. In any case I think I have explained EB’s business strategy. That is all I can do at this point.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 23, 2012, 9:34 PM

“So breadth means knowing about more topics, while depth means knowing more about a specific topic. One cannot do both.”

Wikipedia can. And does.

  • Mike Taylor
  • Mar 24, 2012, 5:20 AM

Mike, my tradeoff principle between breath and depth was referring to people knowing stuff. I call it the cognitive budget. To apply this limit concept to documents you need to set the number of sentences (technically propositions). Then the tradeoff between breadth and depth becomes strict.

In any case I somewhat doubt that Wikipedia is broader than EB, but I certainly have not looked. It would mean that EB has failed to mention an entire domain of knowledge, even in the most general terms. I rather doubt this, after all these years, but who knows. On the other hand, if we did an issue tree analysis of EB I am sure it would be pretty uneven, as far as depth goes. Human writing is like that.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 24, 2012, 7:41 AM

“I somewhat doubt that Wikipedia is broader than EB, but I certainly have not looked.”

Just take a moment to think about that sentence.

“It would mean that EB has failed to mention an entire domain of knowledge, even in the most general terms. I rather doubt this, after all these years, but who knows.”

If you want to know what happened in a give episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, good luck finding that in EB.

  • Mike Taylor
  • Mar 24, 2012, 8:19 AM

Mike, you really do not understand the difference between breadth and depth that I am describing. If EB mentions fiction then Buffy is covered. That is breadth of knowledge. Getting to a Buffy episode is depth, not breadth. We are talking about the structure of knowledge. Knowledge is a tree, not a pile. It has a well defined structure.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 24, 2012, 9:53 AM

David, have you stopped to consider the possibility that the reason I (and Mark Danderson, apparently) have “failed to grasp” your model is that you’re supporting it with incoherent arguments? For example, if you’re going to insist that my adjusted banjo example is wrong, then that means you’re asserting simultaneously that knowledge of two different physical sciences (physics and chemistry) is broader than knowledge of only one, while knowledge of two different banjo techniques (clawhammer and plectrum) is not broader than knowledge of only one. You’re not making any sense.

But let me take one more shot at understanding more generally your adoption of the issue-tree model as a schematic for an encyclopedia. If I understand its implications (and your suggestion that the EB might have “excellent coverage of breadth, given its size”) you’re suggesting that a 25-page encyclopedia could score very high on “coverage of breadth” as long as it includes sections that broadly but accurately describe all the “major branches” of human knowledge: a few pages on science, a few pages on art, a few pages on philosophy, etc. Did I get it right this time?

And this means, if I’m understanding you, that you’re suggesting the EB’s value proposition lies in its selective and compact presentation of a broad range of content — what you call “coverage of breadth, given its size” — whereas Wikipedia fails in this regard precisely because it sacrifices compactness and selectivity in pursuit of depth, but thereby gains nothing in breadth because its large thematic categories are no different from the EB’s. Is that right?

And if so, then doesn’t that suggest that an encyclopedia consisting entirely of the two words “human knowledge” would get a very high score on “breadth, given its size”? After all, those two words cover the whole ground — and they do it in very little space.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 24, 2012, 10:21 AM

Rick, moving away from the semantics discussion (interesting as that discussion may be) and getting back to the point at hand. Speaking for myself, if I had to choose between pay for service portals (and had no choice but to pay) than I would choose Britannica because of its reputation. However, given there are so many free portals available (Wikipedia being the most famous) I feel no need to pay for Britannica’s authority. Why? Because Wikipedia gives me the information I need for free and it is good enough.

I think it might be worthwhile to point out here that the Economist published an article a year back or so which showed that Wikipedia articles were actually more accurate than Britannica articles in a number of instances. But that is beside the point, even if Britannica is unquestionably more authoritative I feel little need to pay for that authority.

So whatever your definition of breadth and depth, the fact is the internet has fundamentally changed the economics of reference publishing (and not for the better from the perspective of publishers). This phenomenon is not just true for reference publishing but for all publishing. The internet has lowered barriers to entry. It doesn’t matter whether these new competitors are as authoritative or as polished as the established publishers, more players means more competition — more competition means ever greater price pressure. Britannica is an excellent example. The cost of Britannica is now $69.95 a year versus $1,400 (assuming one would buy a new print Britannica every year). I don’t care how much money they are saving by not printing, this price differential has to be painful for EB. But it is even worse, as you point out, even $69.95 may be too high a price point. It is certainly too high a price point for me. I am not sure there is a price at which I would pay for EB.

You referenced Gutenberg in your original entry; the main benefit of the printing press was to make knowledge more accessible by lowering the cost of access. Electronic access to information is just a repetition of what has already come before; access to knowledge is about to get a great deal cheaper.

However, I am left with one unanswerable question; what am I going to do with all that extra bookshelf space? Perhaps I will place a figurine of Britannia in the place where EB once stood. By the way, I went to Wikipedia to make sure that the statue depicting Britain is indeed called Britannia.

  • Mark Danderson
  • Mar 23, 2012, 8:32 PM

I’ll tell you what I’m doing with the freed-up space on my shelf: putting a banjo on it. Preferably this one.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 23, 2012, 8:48 PM

Mark, I am beginning to be fascinated by the fact that no one can grasp my point. If the EB strategy is to produce the best 1000 page summary of human knowledge, then it does not matter if the Internet has increased the total body of expressed knowledge by a trillion pages, as it has. The best 1000 page summary is still what it is. This is not a semantic point.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 23, 2012, 9:54 PM

Ah, but reputation still counts for something. Would you be more inclined to buy a book published by Oxford University Press on the history of Russia, say, or one published by the University Press of America, even if the latter was half the price of the OUP book? Ditto for a librarian ordering the book.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 24, 2012, 1:45 AM

To continue from this comment,

Yes Rick, now we are getting somewhere. The distinction between two banjos (plectrum and 5 string), or two styles, or two tunings, etc., are all cases of breadth, but breadth at a certain depth. Above those levels these distinctions and facts are covered by more general concepts. That is the job of concepts, after all. Concepts invoke bodies of knowledge.

As for the two word case, go for it. There is, arguably, the best two word summary of all of human knowledge. It is probably worthless, unlike the best 1000 page summary, but it is there to be found. My students and I used to play the five word game, which means having a discussion in which no one could say more than five words at a time. It was very interesting. Ten words is relatively easy, but five words is very hard.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 24, 2012, 11:02 AM

Then David, if I understand correctly, what you’ve been trying to say this whole time is simply that the EB’s value proposition may lie in the fact that it offers information about a broad range of topics at a high level of generality. Is that right? (And if so, does anyone know of a way that I can get the last 24 hours of my life back?)

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 24, 2012, 1:25 PM

Yes Rick, that is pretty much it. Yours is a nice summary actually, perhaps even worth your time. Selection is the value here, as with education generally. We do not just pay to learn, but to learn the right stuff.

As I mentioned early on, this is also close to the value proposition offered by scientific journals. What is worth knowing? Thus it is not trivial.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 24, 2012, 3:42 PM

If “selection is the value here,” then that suggests that the future of the EB will determined at least in part by the degree to which people trust the EB to make decisions for them about what’s worth knowing and what isn’t. As a clawhammer banjo player, I find myself somewhat disappointed in the EB’s manifest ability to make such decisions for me.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 24, 2012, 8:37 PM

You are kidding right? As a logician I tend not to understand sarcasm, metaphor, etc

Have you ever bought an encyclopedia? When I was a boy my parents bought the World Book for me, a massive set as I recall. I read it from a to z, twice. Not because I had nothing else to read. There are such people. Later I collected encyclopedias, because they are very useful if one is studying the history of ideas. My favorite case involves the ninth EB, which has a brief note about a wacko named Darwin and his theory of evolution. The eleventh EB has a lengthy item by Tom Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog. But I digress.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 24, 2012, 9:55 PM

David, no offense, but you’re doing more than digressing — you’re babbling.

You’re the one who is suggesting that the value of the EB lies in its selectiveness, right? This would mean that the service offered by the EB is one of letting people know (by means of selection) what is and isn’t worth learning about — not so? Since access to the EB costs money, its survival will depend on customers agreeing that such a service is valuable enough to pay for, and that the EB can be trusted to define what is and isn’t worth learning about. Right?

I used to read encyclopedias when I was a boy, too. And I’m very grateful that I now live in a time when the options available to me for learning about new things are far, far richer and much more easily accessible than they were then. If it weren’t for Wikipedia, for example, I might never have learned that ukulele players employ clawhammer techniques. I sure wouldn’t have learned it from the EB, whose editors have provided the valuable service of excluding that topic from coverage (that was sarcasm, by the way). Apparently they don’t think clawhammer technique is something worth learning about. Thank heaven I don’t have to count on them to do my “selecting” for me.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 24, 2012, 10:35 PM

Well, Rick, if you are so opposed to anyone “selecting” anything for you, how did you feel about the state selecting what you got to read in high school, or your professors selecting what you read in a college course? In the case of college, you paid for having someone else select what you studied? How is that different from people deciding to buy an encyclopedia because they trust what it selects for them from the universe of knowledge?

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 24, 2012, 11:25 PM

Sandy, where do you get the idea that I’m “opposed to anyone ‘selecting’ anything for [me]”? What I’ve expressed is gratitude that I’m not dependent on the EB, specifically, to make such selections for me, because its editors and I obviously disagree on what is worth knowing about. I wouldn’t enroll in a class if I didn’t trust the professor to guide my reading on the subject in question; by the same token, I won’t buy access to an encyclopedia if I don’t trust its editors to guide my reading. If a lot of other people a) do trust the EB to make such selections for them, and b) value that service enough to pay for it, then the EB will succeed, and so much the better. I’d be very happy to see it succeed. I don’t have any antagonism towards the EB — I just don’t have a lot of confidence that it has a bright future, given the wide variety of competitors it has, many of which offer much richer content and a reasonable level authority, and are available at no charge.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 25, 2012, 12:03 AM

Rick. I think that describing what I said as babbling is inaccurate. Babbling is scary stuff. But that seems to be an underlying theme here doesn’t it, your free and easy use of inaccurate language? My field is basically applied analytical philosophy, which means spotting and diagnosing conceptual confusions, which are a characteristic feature of technological revolutions. I became a logician precisely because I have a compulsively strong sense of what words actually mean, and when what people say is confused. I am lucky to have turned a disability, literal mindedness, into an ability. As Freud put it, more or less, genius is insanity turned to useful ends. Not that I am a genius, nor insane (hopefully), but the point remains.

In this case you keep coming back to the mistaken concept that EB is somehow flawed because it does not include detailed information about banjo playing, and by extension all the other details in the world. So far as I can tell you have still not addressed the central point, that EB is trying to be the best 1000 page summary of human knowledge, which of course does not include things like banjo playing. Do you claim that they have failed?

Note too that whether you personally are interested in buying such a product is irrelevant. I imagine that few people who work in libraries buy encyclopedias. Nor do researchers, but they are a vanishingly small fraction of the human population. A few million among seven billion. Whether or not EB will sell I have no idea. That seems to be where we really differ, as you claim to know the answer, while I do not.

  • David Wojick
  • Mar 25, 2012, 1:24 PM

But that seems to be an underlying theme here doesn’t it, your free and easy use of inaccurate language?

All language is inaccurate, David, and the question of what words “actually” mean is not an uncontroversial one. (I shouldn’t have to tell you that — you’ve surely read more Wittgenstein than I have.) In my view, your objection to the way I invoked “breadth” in my piece is based on an unjustifiably constricting model that denies the word its full range of normal, useful, colloquial meanings. I believe in precision too, and I agree that words matter. Where I think we disagree is on how much semantic flexibility should be allowed in a given context. I also doubt that any amount of arguing is going to bring us much closer to each other on that point.

In this case you keep coming back to the mistaken concept that EB is somehow flawed because it does not include detailed information about banjo playing, and by extension all the other details in the world.

David, I think you need to read my posting again, and read it more carefully. For someone who insists that everyone else be absolute precise in their use of language, you are curiously careless in your reading and in your representations of others’ points. My point is not that the EB’s lack of detailed banjo information makes it flawed as an encyclopedia; if we acknowledge that a good encyclopedia is by its nature limited in its depth of coverage, then the EB may be perfectly successful on its own terms. But this is irrelevant to my actual point, which is that commercial encyclopedias, even ones that arguably do their job well, have a limitation that creates a challenge for them in the modern information marketplace: they face very stiff competition from other resources that are far more comprehensive, far cheaper, just as easy to use, and still reasonably authoritative. I invoked the example of banjo information not to show that the EB is “flawed,” but to illustrate its limitation as a traditional encyclopedia: it can’t cover every topic that is worth learning about, or that its readers might wish to learn about. In other words, I can’t trust the EB’s editors to decide for me what is and isn’t worth knowing. Resources (like Wikipedia) that offer broader coverage (“broader” in this context simply meaning “more information on a wider variety of topics and subtopics”) at no charge and with reasonable authority pose serious challenges to the ongoing economic viability of a fee-based resource like the EB.

So far as I can tell you have still not addressed the central point, that EB is trying to be the best 1000 page summary of human knowledge, which of course does not include things like banjo playing. Do you claim that they have failed?

No, that’s not the central point. It’s a point you want to make, David, but it’s irrelevant to mine, which you are either failing or refusing to grasp. The EB may very well be the “best 1000-page summary of human knowledge” (though, if we’re insisting on precision here, neither you or I can possibly know whether that’s the case given our inevitably limited familiarity with the literature of the world), but even if it were, that fact would be irrelevant to the issue I’m trying to address, which is one not of objective quality but of marketplace realities: will the EB’s value proposition be one that attracts enough paying customers for it to survive? Will enough people pay $69.95/year for a 1,000-page summary of human knowledge to keep the EB in business? Whether it’s the best at what it offers is irrelevant if no one is interested in the offer. (As a fellow clawhammer banjo player, you ought to understand that; few people are willing to pay us to play no matter how flawless and tasteful our playing might be.) Maybe you think my point is the wrong one, or simply isn’t worth making. Fair enough. Then write your own posting dealing with a better one.

Note too that whether you personally are interested in buying such a product is irrelevant. I imagine that few people who work in libraries buy encyclopedias. Nor do researchers, but they are a vanishingly small fraction of the human population.

Whether I personally am interested in buying the EB is only relevant to the degree that my attitude is typical of the buying public in general. It may, of course, be completely atypical. It may be that for most people, what the EB offers is well worth $69.95 per year. If such is the case, and if the EB markets itself effectively to enough of those people, then it should survive very nicely.

Whether or not EB will sell I have no idea. That seems to be where we really differ, as you claim to know the answer, while I do not.

No, David, I don’t claim to know the answer. I claim only to be skeptical that the answer is “yes,” and to be trying to take the question seriously.

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 25, 2012, 6:06 PM

I am not sure I am following the thrust of this thread anymore, but I thought the discussion was about whether or not something like the EB can survive in the electronic age. I made the point earlier, that the fact that the e version of EB was selling for $69.95 a year versus $1,400 indicated, at the very least that reference publishing, even material published by an organization as venerable as EB, had less (financial) value than it once had. But why take my word for it? The Financial Times published an article on EB’s decision to discontinue the print version

FT interviewed the president of EB, here is an excerpt from that article; “Encyclopaedia Britannica the company has largely moved away from the encyclopedia. Educational software now accounts for 85 per cent of revenues, while 15 per cent comes from print and online sales of encyclopedia content. Mr Cauz (EB’s president) said the private company, though smaller than it once was, has been profitable for the last 8 years. “We’ve traded print dollars for digital pennies,” Mr Cauz said.”

So the answer to the question appears to be that yes indeed, something like EB can survive in the digital age. However, it will survive as a much smaller business (at least in regard to the encyclopedia business). Rick, I hesitate to speak for EB but it seems they would answer your question by saying that they will survive as a company not because they have an encyclopedia portal but because they are a company focused on offering educational products (the encyclopedia being just one of those products).

  • Mark Danderson
  • Mar 25, 2012, 8:19 PM

I am not sure I am following the thrust of this thread anymore, but I thought the discussion was about whether or not something like the EB can survive in the electronic age.

Yes… yes… I think it may have been about something like that, back in the dim recesses of human memory. Thanks for trying to wrestle us back to the point.

I hesitate to speak for EB but it seems they would answer your question by saying that they will survive as a company not because they have an encyclopedia portal but because they are a company focused on offering educational products (the encyclopedia being just one of those products).

Right, but my question really isn’t whether the parent company will survive, but whether the encyclopedia itself is a viable economic proposition going forward. If the way that Encyclopedia Brittanica (the company) survives is by selling lots of stuff other than Encyclopedia Brittanica (the encyclopedia), then I guess the answer to my question is probably “no.”

  • Rick Anderson
  • Mar 25, 2012, 9:09 PM

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