2012-03-22 / Telling It Like It Is

Telling It Like It Is

Closing The Books On Old Fashioned Forms Of Information
By Dara Mormile

The last time I went to one of our local libraries for a research book might have been when I was in college. The last “heavy” research paper I had to write was a ten page Women's Studies course project.

The librarian assisted me with several reference books about feminist writers. Even though the digital world was building its reputation in the early 2000's (about two years before I graduated), I still needed facts and information available in the hard copy printed edition.

Since I'm still a fan of physical books (I haven’t been suckered into getting an e-reader yet), I was taken back when Reuters announced last week that Encylcopedia Britannica would be ending its print editions and going digital.

As soon as I saw the article, I remembered when my mom bought me my first set of encyclopedias when I was about eight years old. Even though I had all those references at my fingertips and I'd thumbed through those gold-spined pages, I was still going to the Jamaica Bay Library to complete school assignments.

The librarian would ask what book I was looking for and then she would give me a bunch of numbers or I'd have to go through their index card catalog and that would, in turn, suggest which books and catalog numbers (a commercial book identification code) I would have to hunt for on the shelves. Looking back at how time consuming that was, I realize now that was just too much work! Honestly, I don't even know what the current purpose those encyclopedias served in the long run – I did love to read them for general interest. Biographies, scientific facts, and historical events were some of the best articles embedded in each volume.

Then again, when was the last time you had to open an encyclopedia to find out something – about anything! Even though printed editions of 244-yearold Britannica are the ‘cold hard facts,’ the information giant had no choice but to join the ranks of references that have gone digital.

According to the Reuter's article, the president of Britannica said the print edition has become more difficult to maintain and “wasn't the best physical element to deliver the quality of their database and the quality of their editorial.”

We should also consider the economic advantages of digital information. A 32-volume print edition of Britannica, available every two years, was $1400. Who will dish out that kind of money to have a row of books sitting in their home, possibly collecting dust? A better deal is getting an online subscription for about $70 per year.

Let's get real, after you've finished your school years and you're out in the real world working, the days of doing research papers that require paper encyclopedias are pretty much over (unless your field requires you to continue to pursue more research).

The information you'll need to succeed is probably going to be provided by sources that are updated on a regular basis – via the Internet. Personally, I get all my “up-to-date” information through Facebook, where feeds from dozens of media outlets that I'm subscribed to are constantly being posted. If something happened 15 minutes ago, I know about it now. How did I find about Encyclopedia Britannica’s digital evolution? Through a feed I saw online, not in a printed publication! Sure, if I picked up a magazine or newspaper, I’d get to that story eventually, but the internet helped me track down the story faster.

Let's not forget about Wikipedia – one of the biggest information sources. This online encyclopedia was born January 2001. How many times have you searched for the meaning or history behind something and clicked on Wikipedia for a reference?

The bad aspect of this modernized, and free, form of fact-checking is that anyone who's deemed “highly qualified” upon a “peer review process” can edit content on the site. I hope educated scholars are the ones making the most contributions to Wikipedia, but as a reporter I seriously don’t consider it a reliable source of information, taking into account that it can be modified (unlike print encyclopedias – what’s published is final).

It's great that you don't have to go through volumes of books anymore to locate someone's biography and you don't have to travel to the Canarsie, Jamaica Bay, Mill Basin, or Paerdegat libraries to thumb through little index cards for a catalog number.

The dying breed of print encyclopedias was inevitable. As a tribute to the evolution of information, I will share one of my favorite passages from The Simpsons:

Bart Simpson: So Dean Martin would show up at the last minute and do everything in just one take?

Homer Simpson: That's right.

Bart: But Wikipedia said he was "passionate about rehearsal."

Homer: Don't you worry about Wikipedia. We'll change it when we get home. We'll change a lot of things.

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