We mustn’t mourn the end of encyclopaedias

AS A boy, I remember being taken to the local library and taught to use the dark, weighty volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As of now, that dates me. A “digital native”, someone to whom the modern information revolution comes naturally, is often defined as a person who has never owned a camera that needs a film. This week we can add, someone who thinks encyclopedias don’t need books. The end of the print version of the EB, announced on Tuesday, marks a turning point, but, despite twinges of nostalgia, one for the better.

“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” – for some, the lament written by T.S. Eliot for the opening chorus of the The Rock is the only response to the end of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s physical existence. If you grew up with the touchstone of the reference shelf’s authority, this milestone can seem an impoverishment. The Wild West of Wikipedia replaces the walled garden of Britannica.

And yet that’s not quite right, and partly because EB isn’t going anywhere. Sensibly enough, Britannica decided not to print another edition, having sold just 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition, with 4,000 more languishing in a warehouse. The convenience and up-to-the-minute nature of digital editions has proven impossible to resist. But this decision is scarcely the end for the company, founded in 1768, which will continue to offer not only an online version of its famous encyclopaedia (un-gated for this week to honour the occasion) but a slate of other digital offerings.

We are in the middle of an information revolution, and publishing is being shaken by the process, but the encyclopaedia is not dying, only taking on a new digital life. Wikipedia can provide a starting point for investigation and EB can still be the arbiter of arguments.

For all that changes, so much stays the same. We still need knowledge, and while markets provide the most efficient way we know to pool divided knowledge, through the price system, in order to use resources better, we also require shared knowledge, a body of agreed facts and understanding. Encyclopaedias are a persistent need, as old as the ancient Greeks and the Romans. Go back to one of the first truly modern encyclopedias, Denis Diderot’s from the 1750s, and his description of the project does not sound so far in ethos from Wikipedia: “among countless difficulties which will come spontaneously to mind, just weigh simply that of having assembled a large number of colleagues, who, without knowing each other, all seem to collaborate in friendship in the production of a common opus.”

Today that project continues and, in its new weightless format, becomes more easily available and more accurate than ever before. Diderot wrote “the Encyclopedia can easily be improved; it can also easily deteriorate” but deterioration, as he saw it, would come if a single faction could control and define what knowledge was. Today, our competitive market economy not only generates the miracles of technology that allow a shelf of books to be squeezed into a website, but it provides an arena where the factions of knowledge can continue to fight in public over the nature of truth. This is not a triumph for one encyclopaedia over another. It is proof of the restless energy of our civilisation improving the encyclopaedia, not by wiping out one kind or another but allowing them to take their fight to a new, digital battlefield.

First published: City A.M., 16/3/12

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Filed under History, Human nature, Innovation, Publishing, Technology

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