Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Encyclopedia Down!

So, when I was a kid, my dad bought a second hand Encyclopedia Britannica, I think it was actually from the 1920s, but hey it was something. Back then, they said that if you didn't have an encyclopedia, your kids wouldn't do well in school--I remember my sixth grade teacher once came to our house, he was selling encyclopedias door-to-door. And it was the old fear appeal, well known to students of persuasion, more recently used to get parents to buy home computers and internet connections. Most of my friends had new editions of the World Book, but anyway there always was the library, where you could find all of the encyclopedias.

Back in the nineties, I wrote entries on "mass media" and "communication" for Groliers, and updated them for their new multimedia edition on CD-ROM, which was also available online. So, I had some inkling that things were in flux, and that encyclopedia were moving over into new media. But then came Wikipedia, and even the changes that were going on changed. And this all came up in an article published last Sunday in the New York Times, Week in Review section, p. 3. The piece was written by Noam Cohen, and entitled "Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias," and it starts like this:

IT has never been easier to read up on a favorite topic, whether it’s an obscure philosophy, a tiny insect or an overexposed pop star. Just don’t count on being able to thumb through the printed pages of an encyclopedia to do it.

A series of announcements from publishers across the globe in the last few weeks suggests that the long migration to the Internet has picked up pace, and that ahead of other books, magazines and even newspapers, the classic multivolume encyclopedia is well on its way to becoming the first casualty in the end of print.

Back in the 1990s, Encyclopaedia Britannica led the pack in coming to terms with the idea that the public no longer viewed ownership of the multivolume compendium of information as a ticket to be punched on the way to the upper middle class — or at least as the oracle of first resort for copying a book report.

Sales of Britannica’s 32 volumes peaked in 1990, but in the next six years, they dropped 60 percent, and the company moved quickly to reinvent itself online. In 1996, Britannica eliminated its legendary staff of 1,000 door-to-door salesmen, already down from a high of 2,000 in the 1970s, in the face of competition from Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia for home computers.

Jorge Aguilar-Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a private company based in Chicago, said that the print edition was still profitable, but that sales were just 10 percent of what they were in 1990. Customers are mostly schools and libraries.

It was only last month, however, that the publisher of Germany’s foremost multivolume encyclopedia, Brockhaus, took similar action, announcing that in April it would be putting online, free, all 300,000 of its articles, vetted by scholars over 200 years of print editions. (Brockhaus hopes to make money by selling ads on its site.) At the same time, the publishing house said it couldn’t promise that it would ever produce another print edition, something it has done regularly since the encyclopedia appeared in Leipzig in 1808.

Publishers in Denmark and France, too, are rethinking the commercial viability of their encyclopedias. A one-volume French encyclopedia, Quid, lost its publisher last month, and may only survive online. The largest publisher in Denmark, Gyldendal, has decided that the subscription plan for its online encyclopedia is misguided (it stopped a print edition in 2006). It plans to come up with another way to support itself.

“There is some kind of sadness,” said Nicole Weiffen-Aumann, a spokeswoman for Brockhaus, “but on the other side, many people are happy, looking forward to our new product — both things you can find in our company.” She added: “There are many people that say, ‘When I was very young I bought my first encyclopedia from Brockhaus, and there will be no next edition, I can’t believe it.’ ”

The Encyclopedia Americana still has good sales in print volumes, said Greg Worrell, president of Scholastic Classroom and Library Group, but the company is focusing on its online outlets. He said it was still determining a print plan, but added, “the likelihood is there will not be the 2009 multivolume print version.”

And it is funny, because encyclopedias were always a mixed bag, generally not respected from a scholarly perspective, seen as an easy alternative to real research, okay for grade school, but not for serious work in higher education. In a sense, they were a precursor of the digest format, which came to the fore in the early 20th century, and was criticized for its simplifications, its dumbing down of information, by critics such as Daniel Boorstin, for instance. But now comes the nostalgia:

To scholars, the ready access to updated information online is a net gain for the public. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t mourn the passing of a household icon — a set of knowledge-packed books on their own reserved shelves that even parents had to defer to.

“I remember in my own childhood in the 1940s, early ’50s, I and my parents would sit around the table and look at the encyclopedia together,” said Larry Hickman, director of a center at Southern Illinois University devoted to the education pioneer John Dewey. “In the old days, the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the World Book encyclopedia was regarded as authoritative,” he recalled, laughing as he agreed, “That’s why you would copy it for your book report.”

And you know, there's an interesting point here that was completely bypassed in the article. It used to be fairly common practice for grade school kids to copy out of the encyclopedia, maybe with some slight changes. No one got all bent out of shape about plagiarism back then. Maybe it was thought that the simple act of copying by hand was enough of a conscious effort to allow the knowledge to be absorbed, making it a real learning experience. Interesting to think about that, the residue of scribal culture, schoolroom copying, the tactile and kinetic learning involved, an intimate means of thinking with the author. But now we live in the age of digital copy and paste commands that totally undermine the notion of copyright, and everyone is concerned about plagiarism down to the elementary school level--this came up in my son's school a couple of years ago, for example. But I digress. Back to Noam:

But Mr. Hickman said that parents and children can have the same discussions “seated in front of the computer, the electronic hearth, as I like to call it.” And he said that losing a set of books considered infallible was actually a good thing for developing critical thinking.

Yet, as encyclopedia publishers struggle, the Internet age has become a golden one for the newer kind of encyclopedia.

An ambitious project to catalog online all known species on earth — with the even-more-ambitious title the Encyclopedia of Life — went live last month. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a project that began online in 1995 and has never been in print and never will be, is chugging along with nearly 1,000 entries that are vetted by an academic board of more that 100 scholars for a total of 10 million words.

Now, enter the two ton gorilla in the room, or was that an elephant?:

And then there is the behemoth Wikipedia, a project that has no board to vet articles and is created by thousands of volunteers, with more than two million articles in English and an additional five million in a babel of other languages.

Wikipedia is regularly among the top 10 most visited sites on the Internet throughout the world — maybe in part because there’s a lot more there than meets the needs of the average term paper. The superabundance of less-than-prized information on the site has led to a phenomenon called “wiki-groaning,” which involves comparing the length of seemingly disparate articles to humorous effect. Lightsaber Combat beats out Modern Warfare, for example, and John Locke, the character from the TV show “Lost,” edges out the other John Locke, whoever he was.

Encyclopedia publishers, while taking swipes at Wikipedia’s unreliability since it can be edited by anyone, have clearly adopted some of its lessons. They are incorporating more photographs and suggestions from readers to improve online content, and they are committed to updating material as facts change.

Britannica says it updates an article every 20 minutes. Even the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia will make changes with relative speed. When a law was passed on voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, “our entry was updated within a couple of weeks, at the latest,” said Edward N. Zalta, a senior research scholar at Stanford and principal editor of the online encyclopedia. “It may have been a day or two — we don’t do it as quickly as Wikipedia, but in a timely way.”

This is the problem, raised time and time again, speed of dissemination become paramount, rather than taking time for evaluation. Editing, gatekeeping, is a process that slows down the flow of information, and the new media are all about instantaneous dissemination. It's been noted that Wikipedia has some things in common with online news sources, and has news stories covered by new or amended entries almost as quickly as the journalists. And hand-in-hand with speed goes a massive increase in the volume of information being made available. Here's a revealing graphic that accompanied the article:

Now, back to Noam one last time:

In essence, the Internet is justifying the hubris of early compilers like Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, said Edward O. Wilson, the expert on insects at Harvard who spearheaded the Encyclopedia of Life and serves as honorary chairman. “There were so few species to deal with, only in the thousands,” he said. “He and his disciples thought they could do the rest of the flora and fauna of the world. Boy, were they wrong.”

In the intervening centuries, Professor Wilson said, science was taken over by specialists. But by allowing specialists to pool their knowledge on a Web site, he said, the Encyclopedia of Life will be able to come close to the dream of a compendium of all the known species in the world.

“Once we get all the information in one place, think of the impact this will have — available to anybody, anywhere, anytime,” he said.

Asked about his own experience with encyclopedias, Professor Wilson said, “I grew up in Alabama — we didn’t have things like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in our home.” What he did have were field guides. “All the field guides — for snakes, butterflies, turtles. Back in the 40s, I had my butterfly nets, and I was right up to date through my guides,” Professor Wilson said.

He added: “There are nerds that say we will have something the size of a field guide, and punch in something. Maybe I am hopelessly old fashioned, but a kid with a knapsack, and a Boy Scout or Girl Scout manual, printed, a field guide on snakes or butterflies, printed, is the best combination in the world.”

Mr. Aguilar-Cauz of Britannica is counting on that sort of nostalgic allure to keep at least some encyclopedias on bookshelves and not just hard drives. He envisioned the print volumes living on as a niche, luxury item, with high-quality paper and glossy photographs — similar to the way some audiophiles still swear by vinyl LPs and turntables. “What you need people to understand,” he said, “is that it is a luxury experience. You want to be able to produce a lot of joy, a paper joy.”

The print encyclopedia as a luxury item! This corresponds to Marshall McLuhan's insight that a medium that becomes obsolescent does not disappear, but rather is transformed into an art form.

Funny thing is, encyclopedias were the product of print culture. At the dawn of the age of typography, you had what was known as the Renaissance Man, the individual who might conceivably know all that there is to know (doubtful actually, but maybe a good chunk of it). Why Renaissance? Yes, it was the rebirth of learning, but it was also immediately followed by the printing press creating a knowledge explosion, so many books, so much knowledge, made so widely available, leading to more people studying more and more, studying books but also the world, discovering more and more new knowledge, so that it soon became impossible for any one individual to know everything. So, the Renaissance Man represented the last period of history where someone could make a legitimate claim to have mastered all knowledge. And with printing came the era of the specialist.

But what also appeared in Gutenberg's wake was the dream of trying to collect all the knowledge of the world within a book or set of books, rather than within a brain. One of the earliest efforts came from the French Encyclopédistes (note that I'm giving you the link to Wikipedia there), spearheaded by Denis Diderot (wikipedia link, again). And what's fascinating is that the effort was an abysmal failure. Print historian Elizabeth Eisenstein noted that by this time, the knowledge explosion has simply become too massive. When I first read about it, I was a bit surprised, since the encyclopedias we used as kids never gave the impression of being failures. But in fact, they are the products of lowered expectations, presenting not all the knowledge of the world--all our knowledge encircled, en-cyclopsed--but just a summary, a digest, of selected subjects.

And finally, this brings me to a poem I posted over on my MySpace poetry blog two weeks ago, which being altogether relevant to this subject, I will now repost here.

Note: For anyone unfamiliar with the language, the final consonants of French names and words are typically silent, so the name Diderot is pronounced dee der 'oh

Digital Diderot


The March of the Wikipedians

Hey diddle, Diderot,
How much do you know?
Are you nimble?
Are you quick?
Jacking up that candlestick?
Can you light up that wick?

Dites-moi, Monsieur
Diderot! Diderot! Diderot!
Did you do the math?
If so, then what did you
Figure-0! Figure-0! Figure-010101!
Burning the midnight 0i1?
Flickering illumination?
Wavering dedication?
Abée c'est Diderot?
To what order do you belong?
Was it all a Cartesian dream?
Or a coordinated nightmare?

Let's all go down to the Wiki-Mart!
To get us some of that Kwiki-Smart!
Then enter the Enchanted Wiki-Room!
"Where all the birds sing words and the flowers croon!"

Hickory Diderot dock!
The mouse clicked on the clock!
While the cat played the fiddle,
And Alexandria's ragtime bandits
Set fire to stacks and shelves,
Knowledge cooked but not consumed...
No matter...
It's all immaterial...
And the cyclops turned into a sysops!
And a multivolume set became the internet!
And they put the pedia to the media!
Wicked! Wicked! Wicked!

Diderot, row, row your boat
Gently down bitstream...
Adieu Monsieur Diderot, adieu mon ami...
The gods have left the machine!

Poetry Blog Rankings

And so you see, I already had my eulogy for print encyclopedias written! Isn't that something!

1 comment:

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

Ha! I enjoyed your poem, and also found the article fascinating, particularly with your comments interpolated. Thanks!

I have a very old multi-vol. Britannica on my shelves, relic of buying it for the kids when they were very small, in preparation for their school years. And useful it was - but I was always the family member who used it most and still do sometimes. (It has a great article on prosody! Which helped get me through Aesthetics at Melbourne Uni many years ago. Though a mite dated now...)

However, I love Wikipedia and I do tend to turn to the Internet first these days. Yes there is too much knowledge for anyone to come even vaguely near knowing it all any more - but what is so good is that it is now more widely available than ever to so many more people. (I only hope the schools are teaching discernment.)