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I quit using print encyclopedias even before Wikipedia came out

Date/Time Permalink: 03/14/12 06:37:54 pm
Category: Geek Culture

The social web today just cannot shut up about how Encyclopaedia Britannica is going to quit printing. "Yay! Wikipedia beat Encyclopaedia Britannica! Ding dong the witch is dead!" says the Internet.

Hogwash. Encyclopedias simply wrote themselves out of style, that's all. The whole Internet, even in 1995, was better than any encyclopedia ever written already.

The best print encyclopedia I have ever used suffered from numerous flaws:

  • Outdated by the time the ink's dry. Especially science articles when new research overturns old results, and geography articles when some pokey Scrabble-winner country has a military coup and redraws its borders.
  • Incomplete entries. The fattest set I've ever owned never had enough entries to satisfy every query.
  • Skimpy entries. What entries were there might be only a couple of paragraphs when I needed a whole essay.
  • Biased... Yes, worse than the Internet!

To expand on that last point: I am very sorry that one encyclopedia set I had got destroyed before I got a chance to scan in some pages and post it on the Internet. It was the 1942 print of the World Book Encyclopedia, and it was hilarious. I'd picked it up at a yard sale for $5 for the history value. Propaganda so thick you could float a battleship in it. The whole thing sounded like it was written by General Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. Right-wing, nationalist, pro-Christian, pro-right-wing, pro-conservative, and more. I understand that it was WWII and the Cold War was right around the corner, but even taking that into consideration, it was the most xenophobic reading I'd ever read.

Oh, the fun I could be having with scanned pages of that thing! You'll have to take my word for it, unless someone else has that same print out there...

This is the kind of thing that makes me snicker when I hear people (such as teachers at my kids' school. Today.) say you shouldn't use Wikipedia because "just anybody can write it". What do these people think book publishing is like? Do they think there's a white-robed archangel with a flaming sword standing guard at the entrance to the holy tabernacle where the august pages are composed by muses and cherubs? I got news for these people - anyone can write a book, or a magazine, or a newspaper, too.

Or blog, or Wikipedia article. Never put blind trust in anything you read anywhere, in any media form, not even from me. Lies and misinformation rain from the sky, but you have to encircle the globe in a bloody quest for a crumb of truth.

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