Are Encyclopedias The Slide Rules Of The Internet Age?

from the but-where's-wikipedia? dept

Growing up, we had a set of Collier’s Encyclopedia’s stored on a bookshelf in the basement – which was tremendously useful to be in looking up information for school reports. While I haven’t paid much attention to encyclopedias for years, it comes as no surprise to find out that the encyclopedia business is struggling to remain relevant. The big sets of books have pretty much lost all interest to consumers, who know there’s a big internet out there of information. While even CD-ROM based encyclopedias did well for a few years, they’ve also lost out to the internet. The surviving encyclopedia companies are still trying to figure out how to make online information pay – and they’re having just as much trouble convincing users why they should bother to use an encyclopedia, rather than just use the entire internet and a search engine as their encyclopedia of choice. Of course, the information in an encyclopedia is professionally edited and much more likely to be accurate. However, for many people, that’s not enough to make it worth paying for. I’m also surprised that an article on changes in the encyclopedia business can completely ignore the impact that things like Wikipedia are having on the business as well. The standard pricing refrain applies: if you want to supply something online, understanding the competitive situation is very important. If others can provide a product that is just as good for most users’ needs for free, you’re going to have a lot of difficulty convincing anyone to pay for it.

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Comments on “Are Encyclopedias The Slide Rules Of The Internet Age?”

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Oliver Wendell Jones (profile) says:

Possible Business Model

How about if the encyclopedia websites offer a “synopsis service” that takes the information from an encyclopedia entry and condenses it down to a couple of quick paragraphs suitable for cutting and pasting into a report.

Of course you would have to add a certain amount of randomness so not every person accessing the article would get the same result, and it would help to have some sort of ‘functional grade level equivalence’ for the writing so that you could ask for two paragraphs written as if by a 8th grader and then past it into your report and save you the bother of having to do work yourself.

Other than that I’m fresh out of ideas of how to charge people for what has essentially become free information

Mark says:

information vs. data

“Free information” doesn’t exist. Never has.

What you have on the internet for free is data: facts and figures that are out there for the taking, but which might or might not be accurate. Information–that which informs you–is data that has been collected, verified, and repackaged in a useful form. Data is free. Information is costly, always has been and always will be.

Online encyclopedias can’t charge the average consumer because in that marketplace the difference between data and information isn’t valued highly enough to justify the cost. But anyone who actually sets a value on the information they use will, if they’re smart, be willing to pay for someone to ensure its quality. You and I won’t subscribe to unless doing so pays off in other ways, but research libraries? Colleges and universities? Newspaper fact-checking departments? It’s an easy sell there, because that’s where the commodity has value.

“Encyclopedias were made irrelevant by the Internet” is a naive judgment that will look increasingly so with time.

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