Britannica: This is Truly, Madly, Deeply Not Wikipedia’s Fault

Perhaps it was SXSW fatigue, but what appeared the be the biggest story of the last few days happened far from Austin, Texas. The iconic Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it was foregoing a print copy of its volumes for the first time in two and a half centuries, focusing on online availability.

It is absurdly easy to blame Wikipedia.

It is absurdly far more difficult than that.

There are several arguments at hand as to the waning value of printed encyclopedia resources. Dan Lewis shone the spotlight on one part of that story (here’s his Storify), so I’m not going to go into the way the secondary resources game changed by way of digital CD-ROM driven guides like Encarta. The short version: what used to cost families monthly payments and a row of a mahogany bookshelf was now available for $50 and exponentially more detailed. It also had one feature you didn’t have before: search. The more information you have, the more insane alphabetical order is as a guide. Intuitive search and linking articles between each other changed how we researched.

The Wikipedia argument is also a nice crutch, but I could spend plenty of time debunking any validity concerns when it comes to data. Yes, Britannica was labeled as authoritative and earned that reputation over 240+ years, but to say that it lacks bias is patently inaccurate. Wikipedia may be peer-edited, but in a way it shows it’s biases a little more because primary resources must be linked in accordance to Wikipedia’s guidelines. The best articles on Wiki are those that include lots of back-up, and when it comes down to it, you can sort out the bias based on where the article points you.

What is really underlying this point is that user validation actually plays a part, and as both Wikipedia and Britannica are ultimately secondary sources, it is on the researcher to sort through the bias and confirm with primary information. Just because Wikipedia allows us to create pages for things that would never appear in a print encyclopedia (you know, like a far, far too detailed article on the history of Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply“), that doesn’t mean it’s any less valid as a secondary source. We still need to verify, and failing to do that with either print or online resources is a user error.



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