Adapted from a column that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 19, 2012
By Larry Magid
When I was a kid, it was common for door-to-door salesmen to pitch the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a way to help prepare kids for college. My parents were among the millions who took the bait and bought the 1955 edition.
My parents are gone and the kids are grown, but the books remain a prominent feature in the house where my sister now lives. Of course, by the time I got to high school that set of books was already old, though as far as I know most of the history sections — like the one on the French Revolution — were still up-to-date. And speaking of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette could have had her own copy of Britannica. The first edition — a three volume set — was printed back in 1768.
You can still buy a set of Britannica books, but you’d better hurry. The 32-volume 2010 edition is available for $1,395, but once those are gone, it will become a relic of the past. Britannica announced last week that it will not be printing any new editions, though you can buy a reproduction of the 1768 edition for $195.
The company will, however, maintain its online and DVD editions as well as an (iOS) edition for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. The online version costs $69.95 a year. The free iOS app lets you view the first page of each article at no charge, but if you want full access, it’s $1.99 a month. You can buy the DVD edition — complete with videos and audio clips — for $29.95, and get a free six-month subscription to the online version. I tried the iPhone app and it has some pretty nice resources, even if you don’t pay for full access.
Consult your local librarian
But before you pay for Britannica, consult your local librarian. Some libraries offer free online access to Britannica and you don’t have to be at the library to use it. You log on with your library card number. Most libraries don’t require you to live in town to get a library card.
Competition from Wikipedia
Of course, Britannica now has a really big competitor. Wikipedia, which was launched in 2001, now has more than 20 million articles in 283 languages. “It’s written by over 31 million registered users and countless anonymous contributors worldwide and visited monthly by around 14.5 percent of all Internet users.” I know this because I read it in Wikipedia, but because Wikipedia articles are often anonymous, this is one of the few times I’ve cited it.
Alan Liu, who chairs the English department at UC [entity display=”Santa Barbara” type=”place” active=”true” key=”ca/santa-barbara”]Santa Barbara[/entity], wrote on a campus website that Wikipedia “has become a powerful resource for researchers to consult alongside other established library and online resources.” But he cautioned, “As in the case of any encyclopedia, Wikipedia is not appropriate as the primary or sole reference for anything that is central to an argument, complex, or controversial.”
He further pointed out that “Wikipedia has special limitations because it is an online encyclopedia written by a largely unregulated, worldwide, and often anonymous community of contributors.” Calling it “an uneven resource,” Liu acknowledged that some articles can be quite reliable because they have been, “vetted … by a community of experts,” while others are unreliable because of “edit wars, political protest or vandalism.”
Both Wikipedia’s strength and weakness lie in the term “wiki,” which means that any registered user can create or modify an article. Wikipedia has content policies that require its articles to be verifiable and neutral. But because anyone can be an author or editor, those standards are enforced only if others go in and correct or challenge anything they perceive to be inaccurate.