The Encyclopedia Britannica Was Expensive, Useless, and Exploitative

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March 15 2012 6:23 PM

Expensive, Useless, Exploitative

Why we should celebrate the end of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition.

Encyclopedia Britannica
Encyclopedia Britannica in print no more

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

It was either a door-to-door salesman or a hawker at the county fair who suckered my parents into buying the Encyclopedia Britannica. My folks have always been putty for smooth salesmen—over the years they’ve been cowed into paying too much for a supposedly amazing vacuum cleaner, a set of purportedly indestructible kitchen knives, a home water softener, and too many infomercial gadgets to name. They were the perfect marks for the encyclopedia man: They wanted to give their kids a good start in life, they believed in the expansive possibilities of consumer goods, and they trusted the authority of the Britannica name.

I don’t know exactly how much they shelled out for those books, but I remember it was a major purchase—big enough that they had to pay on an installment plan, and big enough that when the books arrived in the mail, we greeted them as joyously as we would a new car. My sister and I cleared a space on the bookshelf and carefully installed them in alphabetical order. And that’s pretty much where they’ve remained, mostly unopened and forgotten, ever since.

During all of middle- and high school, I reached for the Britannica two or three times, at most. I remember wanting to find the books illuminating but always finding the experience unfulfilling. Nothing about the design was meant to appeal to young minds—the volumes were heavy, the organization cumbersome, the print too small, the prose impenetrable. Looking back, it’s obvious that of all the gimmicky things my parents bought, these books were their biggest mistake—the most expensive, the most useless, and the most exploitative. That’s why I felt no twinge of sadness when the Britannica company announced this week that it has suspended its print edition. From now on, no more impressionable parents will be guilted into spending enormous sums—the set now goes for $1,400—to help their kids do better in school. Good riddance!

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Well, the Britannica isn’t quite dead yet. While the company is ditching print, it’s not done with guilting its potential customers. The encyclopedia, the company says, now lives beyond the book—its volumes of knowledge are now dished up in a variety of online services, DVDs, and mobile apps. The company offers a free version of the online encyclopedia, but it is clogged with acres of ugly ads. The entry for Abraham Lincoln, for example, offers me deals on a Discover Card, ultrasound tech training programs, auto insurance, Lenovo PCs, “pretzel crisps,” a weight loss product, a Google text ad for Lincoln cars, and Alamo auto rentals.

If you want to escape the ads, you have a few choices: Pay $70 a year for a subscription to the main encyclopedia, $130 a year for a subscription to the “learning bundle” (which includes a kids’ version of the encyclopedia), $2 a month for access to the iPad app, or $40 for a set of reference DVDs. The company kindly offers free trials of all its online offerings, but beware—it takes your credit card info up front, and then auto-renews your purchase annually if you don’t cancel its trustworthy, expensive learning tools.

My advice is to make the wiser, cheaper choice, one that will prove more helpful to your kids in the long run: Pay nothing to Britannica and teach your young ones to use Google and Wikipedia. While there are many legitimate complaints to be leveled at Wikipedia (rarely, it gets things wrong; sometimes, its entries are vandalized), the free, crowdsourced encyclopedia is better than Britannica in every way. It’s cheaper, it’s bigger, it’s more accessible, it’s more inclusive of differing viewpoints and subjects beyond traditional academic scholarship, its entries tend to include more references, and it is more up to date.

Most importantly, learning to navigate Google and Wikipedia prepares you for the real world, while learning to use Britannica teaches you nothing beyond whatever subject you’re investigating at the moment. In its marketing materials, Britannica casts itself as an island of expert authority in a world glutted with erroneous information. “There’s no such thing as a bad question—but there are bad answers,” the site says. “Get answers you can trust with Britannica Online Premium.”

This is a dubious argument; a study published in Nature in 2005 found that both Wikipedia and Britannica were good references, with each getting a similarly small number of facts wrong. But even if it were true that Britannica is substantially more accurate than Wikipedia, why do you want your kids to learn in a cloistered ecosystem that’s separate from the rest of the media? In today’s news environment, you can’t blindly trust anything you see—you have to question everything for yourself. Britannica promotes blind trust. Wikipedia invites investigation.

To see what I mean, let’s go back to that Lincoln entry. Britannica’s piece is written by Richard N. Current, a historian who’s written several books about Lincoln (a fact I learned on Wikipedia; Britannica offers only a two-line bio of Current). This is Britannica’s main claim to accuracy—it invites experts to write its entries, and then its small army of fact-checkers and editors make sure that everything is correct. In a promotional video, the company’s editor-in-chief points out that over its history, some of the world’s most distinguished experts have contributed to Britannica—“all the way from Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie to Bill Clinton, Chris Evert, Tony Hawk, Desmond Tutu, and many others.”

So I’m supposed to trust Britannica’s entry on Lincoln because it’s written by a guy who really knows Lincoln, and I’m supposed to think of its entry on skateboarding as being on the up-and-up because Tony Hawk wrote it. That seems misguided to me: I don’t think Tony Hawk wants to steer me wrong, but shouldn’t I be able to check his facts? Richard Current says that Lincoln was born “in a backwoods cabin 3 miles (5 km) south of Hodgenville, Kentucky.” How do I know that’s true? Unlike in Wikipedia, Britannica’s articles don’t include links to source material. You’re meant to believe what they say because it’s right there in the book—or, now, online.

By comparison, when Wikipedia tells me about Lincoln’s birthplace, it cites its information with a source—Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald’s 1996 biography of Abe. Is Wikipedia wrong about Lincoln’s birth? I don’t know. But I know how to check—I can look at the biography it suggests, and I can check many of the rest of its assertions through its hundreds of footnotes. Similarly, the free encyclopedia’s skateboarding article points out that commercial skateboards appeared in the late 1950s. But unlike Tony Hawk, Wikipedia cites as a source this About.com piece, which argues that “no one really knows who made the first board.” Now, who’s right here—Tony Hawk or About.com? At the very least, the Wikipedia piece suggests there’s some controversy about the birth of skateboarding, a controversy that could lead me to do my own investigation of the primary sources. I needn’t just believe Tony Hawk because he’s Tony Hawk.

Don’t buy what Britannica’s selling. Its reliance on expert authority may yield mostly accurate information, but it teaches kids to believe everything they read. If you pay for this service, you’re building a cocoon of truth around students who’ll one day enter a world where everyone claims to be an expert—and where a lot of those people are lying. If you want to learn to suss out the liars, there’s no better training than Wikipedia.

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