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[2b2k] 14 reasons why the Britannica failed on paper

In the straight-up match between paper and Web, the Encyclopedia Britannica lost. This was as close to a sure thing as we get outside of the realm of macro physics and Meryl Streep movies.

  1. The EB couldn’t cover enough: 65,000 topics compared to the almost 4M in the English version of Wikipedia.

  2. Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge.

  3. Topics were confined to rectangles of text. This is of course often a helpful way of dividing up the world, but it is also essentially false. The “see also’s” and the attempts at synthetic indexes and outlines (Propædi) helped, but they were still highly limited, and cumbersome to use.

  4. All the links were broken.

  5. It was expensive to purchase.

  6. If you or your family did not purchase it, using it required a trip to another part of town where it was available only during library hours.

  7. It was very slow to update — 15 editions since 1768 — even with its “continuous revision” policy.

  8. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became wronger.

  9. Purchasers were stuck with an artifact that continuously became less current.

  10. It chose topics based on agendas and discussions that were not made public.

  11. You could not see the process by which articles were written and revised, much less the reasoning behind those edits.

  12. It was opaque about changes and errors.

  13. There were no ways for readers to contribute or participate. For example, underlining in it or even correcting errors via marginalia would get you thrown out of the library. It thus crippled the growth of knowledge through social and networked means.

  14. It was copyrighted, making it difficult for its content to be used maximally.

Every one of the above is directly or indirectly a consequence of the fact that the EB was a paper product.

Paper doesn’t scale.

Paper-based knowledge can’t scale.

The Net scales.

The Net scales knowledge.

 


I should probably say something nice about the Britannica:

  1. Extremely smart, very dedicated people worked on it.

  2. It provided a socially safe base for certain sorts of knowledge claims.

  3. Owning it signaled that one cared about knowledge, and it’s good for our culture for us to be signaling that sort of thing.

 


The inestimably smart and wise Matthew Battles has an excellent post on the topic (which I hesitate to recommend only because he refers to “Too Big to Know” overly generously).

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