Like Journalism, Encyclopedias Are Better Open

Anyone who grew up with the Encyclopedia Britannica should be forgiven for getting a little misty eyed about the legendary publication doing away with its printed version after more than two centuries, even if the move seems unsurprising (and more than a little late). Memories of those old, dusty volumes aside, there is no question that the creation of a storehouse of knowledge about the world is far better done via a networked and distributed model such as that of Wikipedia than with a centralized, proprietary approach like Britannica’s. As we are finding with journalism and the news business, knowledge-building gets better when there are more people involved. The process may be chaotic, but the result is superior.

Like the disappearance of public telephone booths, Britannica’s decision to shut down its printing presses and stop selling its 32-volume sets is one of those signpost moments in the shift from analog to digital content—something that usually doesn’t surprise when it happens because by that time, it has become obvious to virtually everyone that the world has moved on (so obvious that some thought Britannica stopped printing a long time ago) but is nevertheless worth noting. While telephone booths might be nostalgia items for many—particularly Doctor Who fans—for many more people, the new world of telecommunications is much better.

If you were to suggest now that a printed volume that took years to produce and involved only a small group of contributors (and, at $1,400, cost so much that many families could not afford to buy one) was the best way to distribute knowledge about the world, you might get some agreement from “printophiles,” but most people would probably laugh. Obviously, searching the Web via Google and finding information through online sources such as Wikipedia is the best way to do that. It is free (absent the cost of Internet access) and the information you get is constantly updated: The Wikipedia entry on the Encyclopedia Britannica was edited 51 times within hours of the announcement.

What’s interesting about Britannica’s history is that in many ways it was the Wikipedia of its day. It has had thousands of contributors over the years, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Milton Friedman. What has changed is that the Web now provides us with better tools for getting contributions from more people—both recognized experts and those who haven’t achieved fame but still have knowledge worth sharing—and doing so much faster and much more efficiently.

To me, this is like the metamorphosis that journalism and the news business have been undergoing since the Web first arrived. Like the Britannica, the old model consisted of specific entities that controlled the distribution of information via proprietary platforms and did their best to cultivate an air of omniscience in the process, so that consumers (or advertisers) would keep those companies in business. The democratization of distribution that the Web and social media provide has made everyone a publisher, if they wish to be, and a journalist as well. (Newspapers arguably had their Encyclopedia Britannica moment when the Christian Science Monitor shut down daily print publication in 2008).

This phenomenon may not be a great thing for the business model that has been built up around these institutions. Plenty of newspapers are still busy fighting rear-guard actions aimed at shoring up their print circulation, just as Britannica fought the digital disruption of its business for years. But it is almost certainly a good thing for journalism. As Professor Jay Rosen has noted many times, journalism gets better when more people do it, and the Web provides the tools for a form of “open journalism” that is arguably much more likely to arrive at the truth than any centralized approach. The same principle lies behind the growing campaign to open up academic publishing so that researchers can collaborate more easily.

Is this kind of process open to vandalism or distortion of the truth? Of course. Much has been written over the years about the Britannica‘s flaws as well (including a wonderfully ironic Wikipedia entry about that topic). Errors that appeared in the Britannica’s print edition would linger there not just for hours or weeks, as Wikipedia entries do, but for years, or even decades. How is that a better approach in distributing knowledge? Academic publishing and print journalism arguably suffer from the same flaws, although they may be less serious and/or shorter-lived. Some are already discovering that approaching the business of journalism differently can be a positive thing.

In the end, the death of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition reminds me of the noted IKEA commercial in which a lamp sits in a curbside garbage heap in the rain, while a voice tells us not to be sad because “it has no feelings and the new one is much better.” We may be nostalgic for the old model of knowledge that the Britannica represents, but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the new one is far superior in almost every way.

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