Encyclopaedia Britannica: Civility In The Face Of Adversity

from the stay-classy,-EB dept

Encyclopaedia Britannica’s recent announcement that it would cease its printing operations was the culmination of the inevitable. Many of its eulogizers seem to be laying the blame at Wikipedia’s feet, despite the fact that Microsoft’s Encarta software dealt the first blows to printed encyclopedias several years before Wikipedia’s development.

While many words have been written about the revered encyclopedia’s history and stature, very few words have been written detailing EB’s adjustment to the digital age, which is as much about the things it did do as it is about the things it didn’t do. Shane Greenstein has written a very astute assessment of EB’s reactions to the evolving encyclopedia market, one that clearly shows how forward-looking Britannica was (and is), rather than bemoaning the loss of the print edition.

[E]B was a highly leveraged organization. It sold books with door to door salesmen. This was an expensive way to distribute a product, and it did not, could not, last under assault from the PC and the Encarta.

More to the point, the management of the organization was forward looking. They sponsored a set of projects for DVDs and online experiments. The latter eventually went online in January 1994 with an html version. Its descendants still generate licensing revenue for the organization.

Then Wikipedia came along and ate everyone’s lunch in the reference section, that is, everyone who made DVDs and books. Encarta had to close its doors a couple years ago. It was simply not getting enough sales any longer for Microsoft to find any reason to keep it going.

Britannica realized quicker than many legacy entities that the market it worked in was no longer viable and changed its focus early in the game. Countless industries have been upended by new technologies, but many have failed to react in time to take advantage of these changes. Not only did Britannica shift its focus while it still could compete, but it greeted this upheaval with something even more rarely found in legacies: civility. Greenstein explains that what Britannica didn’t do is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this story.

Here is my point. Notice what happened as the market evolved. The once leading firm changed its organizational form. It adopted a new form too, both DVD and online licensing. It still survives today with the latter, albeit, at a much smaller scale than during its peak.

In short, this transformation came about in a rather civilized way. Do you hear any whining or fussing from EB about unfair trade practices, as so many firms have done? Do you see EB suing anybody for patent infringement, as seems so common today in high tech?** No, in the last decade EB did the classy thing, restructuring as best they could to make due in the new world.

Other firms should pay heed to that example. This is how it is supposed to happen, as one new market replaces an old. This is how markets should evolve. Let’s hear it for Encyclopedia Britannica, for evolving with a sense of class, and for moving along with everyone else as we all move along into the new age.

(**Note: This isn’t entirely true. Back in 2007, Encyclopaedia Britannica took GPS manufacturers to court for patent infringement. Why GPS makers? Well, the patent it acquired from Compton was broadly written, involving search features on CD-ROMs, which was taken to mean that anything computerized or multimedia-based could be pursued for infringing on the patent. An uproar followed and the patent’s definition was narrowed down by the commissioner of the patent office, leaving EB free to pursue the new definition… which was GPS manufacturers. All clear?)

This “evolving with a sense of class” has escaped many legacy industries who have made serious efforts to stop the clock, if not actually turn the clock back to when they had control of their respective fields. Many have the ear of legislators, who often confuse death throes for growing pains, especially when trying to hear over the hubbub of omnipresent lobbyists.

Many companies, when going under for the third time, remain convinced that the only way to escape drowning is to drag someone else down with them. Last ditch lawsuits and cries of “unfair” are the norm these days, rather than focusing energy and time towards moving forward and adjusting to new realities.

As graceful and civil as EB has been, its self-appointed mourners (of what exactly? paper?) have also issued eulogies of their own, offering bizarrely-worded attacks on Wikipedia, as though its only reason for existence was to destroy every other encyclopedia, online or off.

Over at the Atlantic, historian Edward Tenner leads off with an inexplicable headline: “Why Wikipedia’s Fans Shouldn’t Gloat” before disappearing down a “EB was just better” rabbit hole, offering no solid reasons, but plenty of “vibes.” He begins by quoting another mourner, A.J. Jacobs of the New York Times:

The books gave comfort. A set of Britannicas sent the message that all the world’s information could fit on one shelf. Hans Koning, the New Yorker writer, once called the Britannica the culmination of the Enlightenment, the naïve belief that all human knowledge could be presented with a single point of view. The Britannica marched along, neatly and orderly, from A to Z. It was containable, unlike the sprawling chaos of Wikipedia.

Note the wording. EB = “comfort.” Wiki = “chaos.”

Tenner digs deeper:

But there was another positive contribution of the old Britannica. It reflected the old-school cultural judgment that value is not determined only by the marketplace. Compare, for example, the depth of the Wikipedia entries for Fyodor Dostoevsky (5,542 words, 38 references) and South Park.(12,675 words, 215 references). It’s true that the Britannica online academic edition article on Dostoevsky by Professor Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern is slightly shorter than Wikipedia’s, but is different in kind. It may have fewer facts but it probes the writer more coherently and deeply.

In Tenner’s mind, “old school cultural judgment” outweighs reality. He uses a comparison between entries for Dostoevsky and South Park as if to point out that Wikipedia is little more than a pop culture repository, when in fact it only illustrates that he believes his worldview is the correct one; i.e., Dostoevsky is more important culturally than South Park. Of course, this view that is just as subjective as claiming the opposite. He then spends a little time decrying Wikipedia’s “mania for facts” (at the expense of “depth,” apparently) before coming to this odd conclusion.

The reason the Britannica remains far more browsable than Wikipedia is that even a biased, occasionally error-committing writer can be more rewarding than the report of a pseudonymous committee.

While reading the work of a talented writer is usually more rewarding than reading a bunch of facts strung together, Wikipedia’s strength has always been instant access to concisely written facts and it has never portrayed itself as a replacement for in-depth dissection.

Many writers have their own take on the supposedly inferior Wikipedia, who they blame (at least indirectly) for the end of EB’s print run, but none is more bizarre than Chris Castle’s take, which I will quote in its entirety because it’s a.) short and b.) completely nuts:

The authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica launched a new online site at www.britannica.com. The “facts are like water” crowd will no doubt prefer the work product of the wisdom of mobs, but I personally tend to agree with Britannica’s slogan: Facts matter.

I will also be interested in comparing entries in Britannica to entries in the Encyclopedia of the Mob. Very interested. As this can now be accomplished with greater ease and because the EOTM keeps such good records of who did what when, I invite MTP readers to do a little comparing from time to time and if you find any striking similarities, drop us a line here at old MTP, we know what to do with that kind of information. Let the wild waleing start. A little free advice to EOTM “editors”? Don’t walk near any buses with Jimbo.

Beside being super-proud of himself for “encyclopedia of the mob” (and its casual belittling of everyone who has ever contributed to/used it), it’s impossible to parse Castle’s point. Is it that EB’s “new” (ca. 2006, actually) online service will be relentlessly plagiarised by Wiki editors? Is it that Jimmy Wales will feel so threatened by EB’s authoritative presence that he’ll start plagiarizing, rendering the “editors” useless/dangerous and therefore in need of death-by-bus? If you have any guesses, feel free to toss them out in the comment thread.

All in all, Britannica comes out of this sounding like it would rather focus on the future while its biggest fans sound like they’d rather it was 25 years ago all over again. It’s one thing for an industry to make some atrocious noises when confronted with massive upheaval. It’s quite another when supporters make incoherent sympathetic noises simply because they’ve been surprised by the silence.


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Companies: encyclopaedia britannica, wikipedia

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Comments on “Encyclopaedia Britannica: Civility In The Face Of Adversity”

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mudlock (profile) says:


Embrace chaos.

I’m bored to death of people crying about how Wikipedia, and similar efforts, shouldn’t work, because there’s not enough structure. Well guess what? It works. Yes, people could be dicks and fill it with lies, but they generally don’t. If they do they generally get noticed. And even if they don’t, it still comes out as-accurate as good ‘ol well-structured EB ever was.

The whole world is, if you dig deep enough, based on trust. If you can align the incentives right–and what’s the incentive for lying on a Wikipedia article in a clever-enough way that it won’t get noticed and quickly reverted?–then you don’t need a structure to get a good result.

And never mind that Wikimedia has actually instituted lots of (some would say too much) structure as it’s grown. Chaos, chaos, they still cry! Embrace it.

Anonymous Coward says:

We should create a creative commons encyclopedia composed entirely of a few pdf (or is there a better, ‘less proprietary’ format?) files, each PDF file being a volume. So like things that start with A could be one PDF file, things that start with B could be another or it could be AA – AD, AD – B, or however.

One well written, reasonably peer reviewed document that gets a new volume every year or so that can be printed and put on a shelf or kept on a CD or hard drive as a reference.

A good PDF dictionary would be nice as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yes, great idea, just as long as you have electricity and a computer and an internet. If you do not have any of those 3 requirements “digital” knowledge is of no use, if you cannot access it.

With printed information all you need is light (the sun) and the ability to read.

So when an astroid strikes, or yellowstone blows, or we receive a massive solar flair, or even man made EMP’s taking out that infrastructure (that you need) it will be the people who have knowledge and information in an easily accessible form that will be the ONLY ones who will benifit from it.

(and if it gets really cold you can burn them for warmth).

The more your life depends on technology the harder you will be hit when or if that technology goes away..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If a disaster on the scale of an asteroid hitting the Earth does occur do you really think that information in black and white will survive? Unless you’re storing books in vaults I don’t see those surviving. And what about a fire that takes out the library, which is far likelier to happen than a disaster that cripples some entire international database infrastructure? EMPs taking about infrastructure? It’s as laughable as Anonymous taking out a power grid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

do you really think that information in black and white will survive?

Yes, they will, they will still contain the basic information to allow you basic survival.

If a massive solar flare hits the earth, it takes out the electricity supply and satellites. It does not burn books.

How are you going to access wiki if you have no electricity, and the wiki servers also have no electricity.

Or if one day someone decides to “turn off” wiki, or even the entire internet?

I suggest you read a book once and awile, you might learn something.

or just turn the electricity off at your house and see how you go trying to use the internet then !

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

yes, your correct, it will be those who posses knowledge who will have a distinct advantage over those who can use google.

your not going to be interested in how an I7 CPU is built, you will want to know how to make a solar oven or a mirror, or a simple electric generator, or radio transmitter and crystal receiver. How to build a simple boat, or set up an animal trap, or build a dwelling.

You can do all those things if you have knowledge, you cannot do them if you do not have the knowledge to do so, and if you rely on the internet for that source of knowledge, what are you going to do if you have no internet ?

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

?...all the world's information could fit on one shelf.?

As a young teenager, I soon discovered how untrue that was. An encyclop?dia was nothing more than an introduction to the merest surface of knowledge, if you wanted to go deeper in any subject, you had to look elsewhere.

I was already becoming interested in computers at that time. Of all the encyclop?dias I could find with articles on them, only the Britannica one had a few brief examples of actual program code (in FORTRAN). That?s what introduced me to the idea of programming. From there, my next step was Anna Burke Harris? The Compleat Cybernaut, which I lapped up in a weekend.

And not long after that, I came across Burstall, Collins and Popplestone?s Programming In POP-2. As someone who had only known FORTRAN up to that point, it completely blew my mind.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: ?...all the world's information could fit on one shelf.?

Indeed…people who claim that encyclopedias were somehow the entime tome of knowledge on every topic must have never actually opened one up to read it.

In my spare time, I used to skim through encyclopedias and read the topics – only to become bored with the lack of detail in most of them.

With Wikipedia, on the other hand, I can spend hours starting with one topic and digging deeper and deeper into the specifics via links and external sites. The usability difference is immense.

An “official” encyclopedia may contain fact-checked details, but they are fewer, and unless you go elsewhere, you’ll exhaust your learning potential quickly with one. When it comes to “organic learning” and “seeking knowledge”, Wikipedia is a far more valuable starting point for me.

W Ilan says:

Encyclopaedia Britannica had the chance to be a real competitor to Wikipedia. In 2000 Britannica.com was launched which provided free access to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s database. High traffic volumes and poor internal management resulted in Britannica withdrawing the free access and returning to a subscription business model. The Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica clearly outlines the financial problems that the company has been having in recent years. Time will tell if Encyclopaedia Britannica will be around much longer.

Over the next few years we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in an open source, Wikipedia-dominated environment.

Kingharvest (profile) says:

Total cost

EB is charging $1,395.00 USD for the final hardcover edition. I think that was about the normal cost? Which is and always has been quite outrageous.

But for many, many years there were no alternatives and that was what the market -schools and libraries- would bear.

So it would be safe to say they really milked that cash cow for all it was worth for a very long time.

The online version is posted as “$69.95 for your first year and renew after that year at the then-current rate annually.”

So not a bad deal, really, but perhaps the ‘then-current rate’ will be much higher?

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

EB and stuff

I just paid a visit to the EB web site in order to look up the entry for a family member (late brother-in-law) who was quite well known (famous) in international music. The article was concise, but accurate. The Wikipedia article was not so concise, but it was also less accurate. My main complaint is that the trial period for full article access is that it is only for 7 days. I have complained to them about this, stating that 30 days would be more reasonable, and make me feel less rushed into a financial decision. Who knows if they will listen. In any case, their policies on linking and access from web blogs and such seem reasonable to me. Bear in mind that my favorite EB edition is the 1910/1911 one… I have that, as well as a mid-1970’s edition on my bookshelves.

PaulT (profile) says:

” A set of Britannicas sent the message that all the world’s information could fit on one shelf.”

A message that is, of course, utterly false. At best, it was an easy reference for short, surface-level glances at such information, and was outdated before the ink was even dry – and some information would have changed and new information revealed every day since.

Is Jacobs saying that this glorious print model was based on a lie? A rather counter-productive admission when dealing with something that’s supposed to deal in facts…

Steve R. (profile) says:

Continued Development or Cash Cow?

Unanswered is the meaning of Britannica’s “looking forward”. Will they continue investing resources in the encyclopedia to further it as a quality source of content that people seek to use – OR – will they quietly stop investing in it and milk it as a cash cow? Then – when the content becomes “obsolete” – just quietly shut down the whole operation and declare bankruptcy.

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