Robert V. Binder

Britannica Brat

March 19, 2012  |  Blog, Business, Technology

I’ve been reflecting on the recent announcement that Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) will no longer publish in print. Subscription to its web site is now the only offered media.

encyclopedia britannica full set

My full set of the 15th edition (1974) rests on the lower two shelves of a bookcase in the room where I’m writing this — 4 feet 7 inches first to last, leather bound. EB has had more of an influence on me than just generating complaints about all those **** heavy books on moving day.

My stepfather was a Principal Editor of the radically new 15th edition. This was the last chapter of a long-standing relationship he had with the University of Chicago, Mortimer Adler, and EB. It started in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, then to Lake Forest, San Francisco, and then back to Chicago. It spanned my life from kindergarten to college.

The 15th edition was a very big deal, because it realized Adler’s project to create and instantiate a systematic framework for all knowledge. The plan had three levels as indicated by the cover colors in the nearby image: an overview and correlation of big ideas (single volume), short (750 words or less) survey articles (ten volumes), then in-depth articles on selected subjects (nineteen volumes). These articles were written and revised by acknowledged experts in their fields and extensively reviewed and checked before publication. And long before there was hypertext, all of this was carefully cross-referenced. The physical and intellectual heft of this set of tomes is impressive.

Given the popularity of Wikipedia and crowd-sourcing in general, the recent announcement made me wonder how much traction EB’s expert and authoritative content would have in cyberspace. Today, I was relieved to read Gordon Krovits’ discussion of EB’s new media and the rise of Wikipedia. EB is still selling well: “Despite Wikipedia, more people pay to access the encyclopedia website annually than paid for the print edition in any year.”

For an unrelated project, I recently reviewed some preliminary research developed to provide content  for a history of technology as a ten episode TV series. To boot up a timeline database of events, about eighty articles from Wikipedia were parsed. Along with some other sources, this yielded about 2,700 significant events (X was invented in 1934, when …)

As part of my review, I checked many of referenced Wikipedia articles. They seemed generally accurate as far as they went. I sampled several and they mostly held up to scrutiny. However, what jumped out after pulling back from the details was not what was there, but what was not. Many key events and subjects were simply missing from this conceptual mashup. Trivialities had the same standing as game-changers. I didn’t see this as a big problem for the series, as the constraints of a ten-hour video format means that most details will be have to be rolled up. Nevertheless, it drove home a significant limitation of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia cannot be relied on as a comprehensive source – there are often significant gaps, owing to the typically parochial interests of its contributors. In contrast, EB’s articles are expected to be comprehensive and accurate, regardless of the author’s interests. As Krovits reports, “In 2008, [EB] company president Jorge Cauz told the New Yorker, “Wikipedia is to Britannica as ‘American Idol’ is to the Juilliard School.” (This quote appears in the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Cauz.)”

There may not be (m)any more Britannica brats, but I certainly hope there will always be a Britannica.


6 Comments


  1. The ‘significant gaps’ you may see while browsing Wikipedia is because you do not understand exactly how Wikipedia works. Unlike traditional encyclopedias, where flipping through is tedious and time-wasting, Wikipedia has an advanced web-like structure of information. Basically, if one were to write about the Pythagorean Theorem, he/she would not write about it on a general page on mathematics.

    • It is clear you have misunderstood my point. Having created and participated in several Wikipedia articles, I know exactly how it works. The gaps I refer to are a result of the random process by which Wikipedia content is created – no one is responsible for deciding what sub-topics are important for any particular topic. In EB, when a topic is selected, subtopics are inventoried by experts and then presented to roughly the same extent. This process is not perfect, but it does prevent significant omissions. I can’t assess what is missing from the WP page on Mathematics, but in the area that I am expert in (information technology), an exhaustive inventory of its subtopics revealed that more than a few key subtopics were missing. I expect that other broad topics in WP have similar kinds and rates of omission. As WP is increasingly viewed as a trustworthy source of information, this is troubling. I see no way that this problem can be systematically corrected, just as there is no systematic assurance of the content of any given article.

    • “Tedious and time-wasting”? I always thought “flipping through” was the best part of print encyclopedias–bouncing among topics as the whim hits, and discovering previously unrealized links between individual islands of knowledge, is one of the closest analogs in non-digital media to web surfing. Both can be frustrating if you’re trying to ferret out specific details, but enlightening and deeply satisfying if your goal is to expand and stimulate your mind in general.

  2. Hello. I’m working on a paper and your testimony seems relevant. Was the exhaustive inventory of Wikipedia IT subtopics done in 2012 or 2015? If 2012, are those subtopics still lacking today? Would it be possible to recall which subtopics were missing? It is not clear whether a similar test was done on EB, but if one was would you be willing to tell how it fared as well? -J

    • The survey was prepared by another researcher in 2012. I haven’t checked on it since then, so I can’t say to what extent that has changed. I did not compare the coverage in EB. While this would be an interesting project, I don’t have a reason to work on it.

  3. Ah, well thank you for the information.

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