The recently announced death of the print Encyclopedia Britannica reminds me I’m long-overdue for a confession. No, not my Easter duty, although that’s overdue too, but a confession of a different sort.
I haven’t worn a pocket protector since the Jurassic period when I found a girl willing to date me. I’m not a three-pen nerd like my friend Richard (not Feder) from New Jersey (not Ft. Lee), and now improved with an additional state. In my formative years, however, my recreational reading did include encyclopedias. Dictionaries too, I’m afraid. I even have my green CRC book of reference math tables around here somewhere. It’s with my slide rule, I’m sure: I can probably find both if I look hard enough. In case you’re wondering, of course, the green book has my name on the cover in gold leaf.
That is my confession. I was one of those nerdy kids who chose volumes at random, let them fall open where they would, and read articles, tables, etc., about whatever popped up. I read those articles whether I was interested in the subject or had even heard of it before the book popped open. And that’s important!
News reports suggested that the printed, leather-bound volumes of the Britannica became obsolete due to the Internet, particularly due to Google, and whatever search engines Google’s success haven’t driven out of business yet. That seems to be the case. I haven’t verified this independently, but I read that fewer than nine thousand sets of the Britannica sold in the last year for which figures are available. How many door-to-door salesmen could make a living on nine-thousand sets of encyclopedias?
The Internet is better at finding stuff you are interested in than the print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica ever was. Even Britannica still exists on the Internet. The world-wide web has its faults, though. Anyone can say anything, anonymously, without checking a single fact and without editing of any kind. So, if you want to rely on the Internet for information, you’d be smart to cross-check it with numerous sources. Directed searching is great on the Internet. Cutting and pasting are a lot easier for the fledgling elementary-school researcher than plagiarizing by hand ever was. You don’t even have to thumb through a bunch of pages to find stuff. Since you don’t have to thumb, you won’t come across anything interesting that you weren’t looking for.
That’s where the Internet isn’t better than an encyclopedia. If you can use it to surprise yourself as easily as you could use an encyclopedia, I haven’t discovered how yet. Even if you use a news aggregator to comb the web for all the stuff you’re interested in, it won’t find a single thing you might be interested in if only you were already aware of it. So the randomness of stumbling across something new, and interesting while browsing an encyclopedia is gone at worst or just invisible so far to me at best. That’s why I rue the passing of the printed Encyclopedia Britannica. I don’t roux its passing though because the leather covers would make the sauce I created using roux Britannica awfully lumpy.