Sopoforic Agents in Childhood

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Archive for March, 2008

The end of print

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 16, 2008

The New York Times has an article titled “Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias” by Noam Cohen. “It has never been easier to read up on a favorite topic, whether it’s an obscure philosophy, a tiny insect or an overexposed pop star,” it says. “Just don’t count on being able to thumb through the printed pages of an encyclopedia to do it.” The article discusses some of the troubles print encyclopedias have had over the last fifteen years or so, and mentions some of the more popular electronic encyclopedias, including the new Encyclopedia of Life, Wikipedia, and the comparably ancient Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It’s the sort of article we’ve seen before. In February, Brockhaus announced that it would no longer be publishing print editions of its encyclopedia, and earlier this month Gyldendal announced the same thing.

I am somewhat annoyed by the article’s presentation of Wikipedia, though. When it discusses the Encyclopedia of Life, it mentions what a great and ambitious project it is, with a suitably optimistic quotation from Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the project’s chairman. When it discusses the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it mentions that the SEP is written and verified by experts, again with a suitable quotation from Dr. Edward N. Zalta about how quickly the Encyclopedia is updated to account for recent events.

When the article discusses Wikipedia, it does mention that Wikipedia is large–it calls it a behemoth, actually, which doesn’t seem quite the most complimentary word that could be used. Then, rather than mention our quality initiatives, or our very excellent coverage of recent events, it spends a paragraph discussing… wiki-groaning. Honestly, I don’t ask that Wikipedia’s faults be glossed over, but is it really necessary to mention wiki-groaning in every article that is even marginally related to Wikipedia?

But that’s beside the point, I suppose. It is sad to see print encyclopedias go. I’ve got a dozen or more sets of encyclopedias at home, taking up more than one whole bookcase: specialized encyclopedias of science and nature; a collection of handyman’s encyclopedias which describe how things around the house work, and how to repair them; small, six or seven volume sets of more condensed encyclopedias; and then the larger sets of World Book, and Funk & Wagnalls (which became Encarta), and the Encyclopedia Americana. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading them, each set, each article unique and interesting.

My sadness over seeing them go, though, is outweighed by my joy at what is replacing them. Many of these encyclopedias’ online versions are to be freely accessible, and ad-supported. It’s not the same as being freely licensed, but this is still a huge amount of knowledge that anyone with an internet connection will be able to access for free. Even if Wikipedia were to fail tomorrow and the database be lost forever, the fact that these encyclopedias are now available online and for free means that our project has been a success. I look forward to far greater successes in the future.


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