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.