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

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Spellbinding, Yet Clueless


New President Interview -- Part 12*

Q> When you were in college Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990) wrote the book, The Peter Principle : Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969). You wrote a paper that was later published saying that what they said was not new.  You traced the idea that competent people get promoted to a level of incompetence appeared in 1767 in the comedy  Minna von Barnhelm by the German playwright,  Gotthold Ephraim Lessing[1]

 A> In Lessing’s drama, the character Major von Tellhein suggests that Paul Warner (an old sergeant) should become something more than a sergeant. Warner answers, “To become something more than a sergeant! I do not think of that. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly a worse general.”    Warner knew that everyone has his own level of comfort and competence.  

I was young[2] when I wrote that paper yet I understood the roots of the Peter Principle are in the book of Deuteronomy 16:18 “Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself”, and  the next verse, “You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree”   Asherah is a tree associated with idolatry. Anything connected to idolatry totally forbidden. An organization is responsible for appointing people to the right positions and making sure they are competent. The point at which an employee is no longer able to perform at with competency, demonstrates the Peter Principle.  At the time I didn’t understand the connection between connection between the hiring agent and a level of competency.

Q> I’m a little lost.  What have you learned since you wrote the paper about the process to hire competent people?

A> Remember I wrote the first article as an undergraduate almost 40 years ago.  I understood literature and history more than I understood management.   The teacher, Resh Lakish, in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 7b: explains the Biblical verse in such a way to show us that the appointing or hiring body has a pivotal role appointing the best judges.  An organization must appoint people to the right jobs.

For example a person who gives spelling binding speeches and tells people what they want to hear may get elected to a high political office, but giving great speeches does not indicate an ability to govern, make decisions and lead.  An arrogant leader, who does not recognize his or her limitations, soon will reach a level of incompetence and drag down the entire organization.

A good speaker with a command of language and the material is but one indication of competence. One has to be articulate, but spell binding is not a requirement.  Sometimes the speech is all we have to judge someone, but actions speak louder than words.

In another college, where a friend is the librarian, the dean who supervised the library was really quite clueless as to what is required for a library to function.  Based on postings in library listservs this is not uncommon.  The business functions of the library are very different from an instructional department.  Instructional department budgets mostly consist of personnel.  Libraries need to purchase books, databases, and other resources so they can serve everyone in the college.

I encouraged all the deans and program directors meet with the librarians to figure out ways to be on the same team.  When we conducted a search for new assistant dean of instruction, we found several candidates who had not been in a library or used library resources in such a long time, they couldn’t their last visit.  These candidates had not written an academic paper since they left college. These candidates never made the first cut.

Q> How does this translate to the College? How does the College make sure people are in the right positions?

A great teacher or professor does not make a great dean. Someone who knows how to say the right things at the right times may advance to higher and higher positions, but that does not mean they are competent.  Part of the job of an administration is learning how to make people feel good who work for you. That is motivation.  It’s my job as president to make sure my department head have the tools to get their jobs done.   Competency requires the worker to use the tools and produce value for the organization.  If the tools are not working, it is hard to do a good job.  People get frustrated when they have faulty equipment or systems. 

Good leaders know how to choose team members who complement each other.  A manager needs to trust the people s/he works with.  Team members know they can’t all have the same knowledge, background and expertise.  Team members know how to share information so that the team works as a single body 

 Q> How does sharing information help the team?

Imagine someone walking into a college building for the first time and needing to attend a meeting.  This visitor does not know which room to go.  The person asks the security guard for help.  In team player organization, the security guard would have the tools to either tell the visitor where to go or know how to find a person who could help the visitor.  In a customer centered organization, any staff member should be able to help a visitor or caller find the right place to be or find the phone of someone who can.

I once visited a college for a meeting.  I was told to meet on the first floor of the building and someone would come to get me.  I asked which building.  And they said none of the buildings have names or numbers on them.  Since I was meeting with a librarian, I found the building with the library and waited at the desk near the entrance.  The appointed time came and no one showed up. I asked for help in the library and no one knew where the person I was meeting could be found.  I was finally told, I was in the wrong building.  This was an information failure.  Not only did they fail to give me accurate and precise information, the college was not properly marked, and no one knew how to help me.
Projects within the college need to pay attention to how they impact both the students and those who deliver services to the students.  After several shootings at universities the College made a plan for emergency notifications.  This system, in place before I joined the college, is used to inform students, faculty and staff of any urgent situations.  For example when the College closed because of a winter snow storm, the system was activated.  

All the photocopiers in the College were replaced in January.  This was a huge project that impacted to way we do business in every office.  Before I approved the project I insisted that we include a notification plan for everyone involved including the students.  I did not want anyone to be surprised.  Training to operate the new copiers was begun before the first one walked through the door.  It amazed me that the project leaders did not even think of how to communicate the changes.  This is an example of a time that I had to be very insistent so that we can be more of a team.

Q> Is there a cure for the Peter Principle?

It depends on what you mean by a cure.  People need tools to succeed.  The tools include things they can hold and touch and systems and procedures that are intangible. We need to continuously identify the skills and tools needed for success. We need faculty development to show them both how our organization works and encourage them to attend classes, workshops, and training sessions so they keep up with the profession and meet fellow professionals in similar organizations. We need to fund ways to let they do research, writing and study. We need to find ways to get to “yes.”

If an employee performs well we need to find ways to make sure they do not become disillusioned and stagnant. We have to separate the ability to spellbind the audience from the skills needed to get the job done. The ability to carry out the duties and responsibilities should be primary reason for getting appointed to a position. Before a promotion, one must show the ability to perform the new duties of the job.

Q>  What is the cure for being clueless?

Learning never ceases.  When one completes one area of learning, it is time to start new learning.  In other words, never stop learning. "He who adds not to his learning diminishes it." [3] One must always be aware that we are knowledge workers.  One person does not know everything and you can not expert your associates, colleagues, or student to be mind readers.  If someone in the organization is not asking questions, no one is learning enough.    "There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and this is not learning from experience." [4] One must not only understand the organization, but never stop learning outside of what you are competent in today. 

The head of the organization must set the example for those who work below.  I was impressed last week when I heard a scholarly lecture from the dean and chief academic officer of a college.  Not only was he an excellent administrator, but also and expert in and aspect of 16th-17th century German history.

Someone who is considered clueless is not making connections between areas of knowledge.  The cure is to learn about areas outside your department and area of comfort.
Q> Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

*Part twelve of an imaginary interview with the recently appointed president of the College.   Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.
[1] I used an e-book from Google books.  Full citation:  Lessing , Gotthold Ephraim. Minna von Barnhelm / with an introduction by Edward Brooks. Philadelphia, D. McKay [1899].

[2] Remember I was Bible major.

[3] Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud, Avot  13:1.

[4] This thought is often attributed to Laurence Peter, but it seems to have first been written by Archibald McLeish, poet, writer, and Librarian of Congress. There are at least 40 books that include this quote, but none give the name of the original source.