Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print, moving to an entirely digital platform. Few are likely broken up about the transition, though I confess: 🙁
I lived in encyclopedias as a kid, when I wasn’t nose-first in National Geographic (when it was just a magazine, not myriad TV channels). To be specific, my encyclopedia of choice was The World Book Encyclopedia, a 22-volume set purchased by my parents in the 60s (the 1960s, that is), cos that’s how information rolled back then–on foot, door-to-door, from some worldly sage salesman to the bottom shelf of my sister’s book case. World Book went digital in the 90s .
I remember in high school my cousin and I discussed the limitations of our encyclopedias, that life was going on and it wasn’t within our frame of reference. We dreamed of a hotline we could call and ask any question under the sun, and some wise soul would answer it with page-crisp specificity. We dreamed of a living encyclopedia. Little did we know.
In college encyclopedias became baby resources. Their itty bitty way of breaking concepts down into manageable knowledge got no respect. Professors made them off-limits, as if referencing one oversimplified academic greatness. “Secondary sources,” they were. Dated, stale, too general, not cutting edge, with my ultra cool literary brothers and sisters I abandoned them, post-haste.
Secretly I grieved the loss of my factoid fetish. There was no Internet as we know it today. All I had was a fledgling World Wide Web, shy of information, heavy with personal web pages perpetually “Under Construction.”
By my mid-20s I saw the practical futility of such printed reams. Of their academic absurdity, a friend casually pointed out the obvious. “Encyclopedias are useless. An anaconda is always an anaconda. You don’t need to keep looking that up.” I couldn’t argue the point, though it didn’t sit well with me.
Then sprang up thousands of geek UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) web sites, random experts spewing everything anyone ever wanted to know about X , with no fact-checking in sight. From them emerged wikis and endless online possibilities to stew in debatable trivia.
I’m sad to see Britannica leave the playing field of printed reference materials. Yes, the winner writes history. But we’re not talking about history books. And sure, language evolves, though we’re not discussing dictionaries (Hail Mother of Morphemes, full of semantic grace, printed OED, gods rest your soul). It’s nice to have real-time resources to track dynamic truths, though what about good old-fashioned facts? I love nonsensical surfing as much as anyone, but to reference web sources as fact is elusive, slippery, mutable one screen refresh to the next without an ounce of accountability. Digital references never bring me the satisfaction, the security of reading in a credible text that what is said has been proven empirically true.
What makes digital information so challenging is the shortness of our memories. We hope we know what an anaconda is, because if a glitch changes its details on some website, how far would the bad intel propagate before a genus was theoretically altered in our digital libraries? The worth of encyclopedias isn’t measured by the immutable details of what constitutes an anaconda. It’s in our ability to go back and consistently verify that we recorded its details properly, so that at some subsequent point, someone who doesn’t know what an anaconda is can stand on the credibility that a long time ago some researcher got it right–the first time.