Saturday, March 24, 2012

Goodbye Paper Encyclopedias?

I wrote in this blog in November 2010[1]   about how  getting to “yes” is better than outright forbidding of something.  Some teachers from elementary schools to colleges say “don’t use encyclopedias” or “don’t use the Internet.”  When answering a reference question I translate this to, “don’t use unreliable resources without understanding their bias and measuring reliability.”  If teachers forbid something it makes it sweet, forbidden fruit that students want even more.

A friend told me about the school that her grandchildren attend forbids home Internet use.  A few years ago one college teacher forbade her English 101 students from using the Internet to do research for school papers.  These teachers are limiting their students’ abilities to interact with the world of research.  I worked with this college teacher for three years to show her that the Internet is a tool and the library databases are the way to access scholarly journals.  The librarians show classes how to use electronic resources as a research tool to increase the students’ ability to learn and do the research assignments.

On the other end of the spectrum an elementary school librarian told me that the teachers in her school don’t understand the basics of research.  In a fourth grade class students used only Google to find background material for their research papers. They did not use the library, encyclopedias, or library databases.  The librarian said that the projects were watered down and taught very little about the critical thinking skills that fourth graders should be learning. When mentioning this to the teachers, they just didn’t understand the problem.

Scholars and I also mean students of all ages should have a whole toolbox full of possible research tools. The tools should match both the task and the needs of the student. One should not just dismiss a whole class of materials and also one should not depend on just type of resource.

In a well designed curriculum getting to "yes" in multiple ways or paths is better than forbidding an action. If the “Internet” is forbidden, students will still find some way access it and then will be turned in liars. If the school figures out a way to permit something, it can be more easily controlled. Saying "yes" indicates more trust than "no."

In the days before electronic data bases, we only had paper based databases such as encyclopedias, handbooks, and directories.  When I was in elementary school we got a visit from a door-to-door salesman selling an encyclopedia.  He used all the techniques to show how owning an encyclopedia will help with school work.  We bought the encyclopedia and I read through every volume.  It was part of my recreational reading.  It was not the only encyclopedia that I read.  We had another set that was aimed at younger children. 

Encyclopaedia Britannica published its first digital version in 1981.[2] In 1998 I got a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia on CD-Rom.  I also looked at copies of Microsoft’s Encarta. I tried several other CD Rom based encyclopedias, but never found one that was totally satisfying.  These were powerful, yet limited tools.  They were more current and more portable than print versions, but lacked to ability to browse, read systematically,  and discover knowledge by serendipity. While the makers added audios and visuals that were not possible in paper editions, the text was either the same as the print editions or was abbreviated.  Sometimes the articles were too short and not very compelling to help in research. 

General encyclopedias frequently lack the depth of coverage that is needed for a researcher. The purpose of a general encyclopedia is to give background on large selection of subjects. Subject or scholarly encyclopedias have articles written by experts and have bibliographies or advice for further readings. The articles in these specialized encyclopedias are sometimes at the level of a scholarly journal article. An exercise I give when teaching about reference services is to read and compare similar articles in different encyclopedias and discuss their bias.  An example exercise is: read the article about New York City in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Judaica, World Book, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Each article will have a different focus and present their part of the general picture.  None will be enough for all you want to know about New York City.

On March 13, 2012 the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that it would cease publishing on paper. This was a business decision based on competition from Wikipedia and other free online encyclopedias.  The company publishes many other books and electronic resources such as Compton Encyclopedia for the middle school and high school age students and Britannica Illustrated Science Library for children in grades 5-9[3].   They market these encyclopedias to the home markets.  Since the CD-ROM based Encyclopaedia Britannica[4] is $29.95, few people want a multi-volume 100+ pound encyclopedia sitting on their home shelves costing $1395. The CD-ROM comes with access to the web-based information service that can be accessed on a computer or mobile device. Buyers get a CD-ROM to hold and the current content of an online resource.

The strengths of electronic and paper based encyclopedia are also their chief weaknesses. In an ideal library or home one would have choices based on the needs of the researchers.  Let’s examine from a librarian point of view each of the statistics that Statista has discovered (    

Sales of the print edition of the Encyclopaedia dropped from 120,000 in 1990 to 40,000 in 1996 to 8,000 for the latest printing.  This parallels the growth of online encyclopedias.  The 8,000 sets sold generated about $11 while the Wikipedia Foundation ( collected, according to their annual report[5] for July 1, 2010- June 30, 2011, $24,785, 000 in contributions and other income. They have 80 employees to support 423 million unique site visits.   The Encyclopaedia Britannica company is privately held and does not publicly report its financial figures.



The online Britannica costs about $70 per year.  The print version costs $1395.  Wikipedia is free.   Libraries subscribe to many databases that cost in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. We usually tell students that you get what you pay for.  Value is added by editors and selectors. The value of anything is based on the need it fills in the minds of the consumers.  If you don’t want to spend money Wikipedia wins. If you want the services Britannica offers, it wins.  There is no clear winner in this category. 

Number of articles

Britannica has about 65,000 articles selected by experienced editors and written in English by experts.  Many of the experts are well-known scholars.  Wikipedia has more than 3,894,000 articles in written in English.  43 other languages have at least 100,000 articles written.  Wikipedia wins on the number of articles, but numbers are not an accurate indication of value.  One well written article is more valuable than 1,000 trivial or useless articles.  Too many articles is just as bad as too few articles.    Since more is not better, there is no clear winner.

Size and Weight

The 22 volumes of Britannica weight about 129 pounds. The Cd-Rom version weighs about 2.5 oz. [6]  If you use a tablet or handheld device to access the Web, the weight is 1 -2 pounds.  The print version is the loser because no one can carry all the volumes at once.

Number of Contributors

Britannica has about 4,000 contributors including leading scholars and Nobel Prize winners.  Anyone can write or edit a Wikipedia article.  Most contributors write anonymously.  Signed articles by scholars and vetted by editors beats large numbers of anonymous contributions.


Wikipedia has millions of readers who can correct problems the moment they are discovered.  There is no editor vetting the contributions.  While people may write bias or “fluff” articles; critically reading them requires the same analysis as reading print articles.  Many articles have been written comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia compared to the Britannica.   Reid Goldsborough in “Internet Encyclopedias in Flux” [7] says “Wikipedia is far from perfect… as with all information used for important purposes, is to vet it by seeking multiple sources.” In a December 2005 article in Nature[8], it was reported that the differences in accuracy between Wikipedia and the Britannica is not great. Since 2005 Wikipedia has taken steps to increase reliability.  Changes are tracked so that any reader can see the history of changes.

While Britannica is considered the “gold standard” of encyclopedias, yet it is no more accurate than articles on the same subject in Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has the advantage of being up to date; Britannica has the frozen thoughts of the writers.  

There is no clear winner as to what source is most accurate.  The level of reliability should be judged by comparing sources. Even so-called experts can put information in an incorrect light. Two people could observe and report about an event without mistakes and still the reports could be wrong according to the even planners.  For searches that only want background information, either source will work.  For searches that demand accuracy, one needs to triangulate three or more sources.

It is a window to the world at the moment of publication. Paper is more durable than electronic storage and one does not need any electronic devices or the Internet to read a piece of paper. If you want to understand the world of a particular year, the print version is clearly the winner.  You can even purchase the facsimile version of the 1768 edition of the Britannica.  The 1911 edition has been digitized and is available for free from Google Books or the Internet Archive. 

If you want an article that reflects something that happened today, the online version is the winner.  If you want historical context or a window to another time and place the paper edition is the winner.

By their very nature encyclopedias must be used with care in serious research.  They can not be the end point of your research. It is easy to fall in the trap of free online resources.  Information gathering, recording, storage and distribution cost money.  While cataloging the book, Introduction to International Disaster Management, I noticed a chart on page 99 with "Wikipedia" listed as a source.  First "Wikipedia" is neither a personal or corporate author. "Wikipedia" and other general encyclopedias as an authoritative source in an academic book or paper are generally forbidden.  We teach our students to use all the tools to discover information, but no teacher will allow a citation from "Wikipedia."  The chart on page is for maritime disasters. It includes ships that were sunk because of acts of war. I would not call that an accident.  If one checks the full reference in the back of the chapter on page 137, the author claims the title of the article checked was "List of epidemics."  Maritime disasters are not epidemics.  When I checked the Wikipedia article on maritime disasters, I found many discrepancies between what is in the book and what is in the article.

The author not only used a flawed source, he incorrectly cited the source, and did not even copy the correct numbers from the original article.

I hope that paper based reference books will continue to be created.  Publishers should be using both electronic and paper to distribute content.  Each has its advantages and weaknesses.  It is not time to say “goodbye” to paper based content, but time to say, “Let the consumers have choices.”

[2] According to their web site, “Brands and Divisions,”

[3] From the EB web site:,  “This product is only available to individual consumers and is not valid for school, library, or resale purchases. “   The company has other web pages (’s_by_britannica.html ) to market their products to schools and libraries.  They have different prices and pitches.

[4] Although is in not perfectly clear from their web site, the CD-ROM is probably not the full text of the print version of the Encyclopaedia.

[6] According to Mary Ellen Quinn in “Encyclopedia Update, 2010”  (Booklist 108, no. 2 ,September 15, 2011: p. 50-52.) a review of encyclopedias she says that the CD-ROM versions of encyclopedias are long gone.  Since the CD-ROMs are still sold by the Britannica she is mistaken.
[7] Goldsborough, Reid. "Internet Encyclopedias in Flux." Tech Directions 69, no. 2 (September 2009): p. 12-13.

[8] "Wiki's wild world." Nature 438, no. 7070 (December 15, 2005): p. 890. Giles, Jim. "Internet encyclopaedias go head to head." Nature 438, no. 7070 (December 15, 2005): p. 900-901. 

Reported also in: "Nature gives thumbs up to Wikipedia. (cover story)." Information World Review no. 220 (January 2006): 1. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts.
Comments received via e-mail  Included with permission.

I LOVE your point of getting to YES.  I am stealing that. LOL

I truly see research in similar light as you do.  Excellently posited.  Bravo!

Diane Meyer
Houston, TX
  I agree- but the first thing I wanted to shout when I read your e-mail and post is: Databases aren't the same as "the
 Internet"!!!  (not that you think they are, but our students and teachers often do) I spend a lot of time with both teachers and
 students reminding them that freely accessible websites are not the same as subscription databases and that the information in the
 databases COULD be found it a book/magazine/newspaper but my library isn't big enough and we don't have enough money to buy all of those
 resources so we allow them to see them via the databases.
 I know that this is a simplistic explanation, but It's the way I've chosen to go. In fact, I'm presenting on this to our PTO tomorrow night!
 Genevieve Gallagher
 Charlottesville, VA

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