A bittersweet bye-bye to Britannica

Mar 14, 2012

FORTUNE -- Wikipedia's entries for "Mercantilism" and "The Strait of Malacca" are better than the entries in The Encyclopaedia Britannica's mobile app.

This is bad for Britannica because subjects like those are supposed to be right in the venerable encyclopedia's wheelhouse. While Wikipedia is far more wide-ranging, with exhaustive entries for each episode of The Simpsons and all of Pink Floyd's albums, Britannica is often assumed to be superior on academic subjects. But often, it isn't. Its "Strait of Malacca" entry includes no map; Wikipedia's does. And Wikipedia's "Mercantilism" article is vastly more readable, clearer, and more exhaustive (at least, as of March 14, 2012 at 7:58 a.m. PDT.).

As had been long expected, Britannica has announced that it will stop selling printed versions of the encyclopedia, which has been published since 1768. It will now rely entirely on its digital products -- its Web site and apps, where it makes some information available free, but puts most of the content behind paywalls.

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“This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. President Jorge Cauz told the Associated Press. “This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.”

But of course that's not entirely true. The company says about half a million individuals pay for access, while more than 100 million get access through libraries and schools. But to say the demise of the print edition has "nothing" to do with Wikipedia and Google (goog) is to deny reality. The Wall Street Journal notes that more than half of Google searches put a Wikipedia page in the No. 1 position in the results. And less than a half-percent of searches on terms that put Britannica pages in the results actually draw searchers to the site.

None of which is to say that Britannica has outlived its usefulness. Thanks to the fact that it is carefully written and edited, it remains an authoritative source on the subjects it covers, at least in terms of reliability and accuracy. If you need to cite the date of the first lunar landing in a term paper, you can rest assured that Britannica has it right. Wikipedia probably does, too, but because anyone can edit (or vandalize) the site at any moment, particular facts must in all cases be cross-referenced with other sources -- which are often linked to right at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry. (It's usually a good idea to cross-reference Britannica as well, just to be safe.)

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In many cases, though, people just want an overview of a subject, to gain a general understanding of, say, mercantilism. In cases like that (and certainly in cases where a reader wants to know all about
Dark Side of the Moon
), Wikipedia is often at least as good as, and often better than, Britannica. Quality fluctuates wildly on Wikipedia - many of the facts in its Strait of Malacca article are unsourced, for example (which is duly noted at the top of the page), but for perhaps the majority of uses, it suits most users just fine.

Whether a free, editable encyclopedia is better than a professionally produced one is too wide-ranging a question. They're really two entirely different products, and whether one is "better" than the other depends on what you need it for. But there's no question that in a strictly utilitarian sense, it's far better to publish any kind of encyclopedia digitally. It's easier to look stuff up, to search for terms within articles, and to jump to related articles (and in Wikipedia's case, outside sources).

Still, it's sad to witness the demise of the print edition. There's an aesthetic quality to all those formidable looking books, lined up along the shelf like soldiers of knowledge, that can't be matched by an app or a Web page.

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That of course hasn't stopped the new-media gurus from crowing their oddly misplaced triumphalism today. Jeff Jarvis, the combative champion of all things digital who wields buzzwords like a Ninja wields throwing stars and who regularly celebrates the suffering of print publishers, opened his long string of giddy tweets this way: "Britannica was always a rip-off sold on guilt. Buh-bye."

He later insisted that his glee was entirely positive, based on Britannica's forging ahead into the digital future and allowing knowledge to "escape its bounds." But his underlying feelings were made clear in that first tweet. One wonders whether he similarly applauded when they finally tore down the Thunderbolt roller coaster on Coney Island in 2000. The thing was just sitting there, dormant and useless, for nearly 20 years. And yet it had been an important part of people's lives, something they felt connected to in a visceral way. It had to come down, but for those people, it was sad when it did.

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