So long, Encyclopaedia Brittannica

After 244 years of publication the Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease to be available in hard copy after the current supply runs out.

This, as president Jorge Cauz notes, was foreseeable, even inevitable. And I can understand the greater value of an information resource that is continuously updated.

So, I regret the passing of the hard-cover version, but there is something much more troubling to me, as Lynne Kobayashi, the Hawaiian librarian, points out. We live in a world where information is available from almost innumerable sources through a couple of mouse clicks, but (a) that information is only accessible if you have a computer – see any number of articles on the “digital divide” – and (b) without professional guidance, it’s almost impossible for a user to determine the quality of that information. The internet is lively, free (except when we’re giving up our privacy to be bombarded with advertising), and practically limitless, but that lovely chaos also means all kinds of crap can masquerade as fact. Listen to any high-school, or even college, teacher bemoan students’ reliance on Wikipedia.

(Let me hasten to add that’s not meant to be a knock of Wikipedia per se. It’s a useful general reference; I use it often. But it’s not an academic source.)

Britannica will still be available online, but it will cost you, and so it competes with information sources that are free, but less credible. I don’t like those odds, nor do I like the implications of a global society being dumbed down because they couldn’t tell the difference between fact and crap. Sorta like Fox News . . . .



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