Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Britannica vs Wikipedia

Among my reading for reference this week is a discussion of Wikipedia versus the Encyclopedia Britannica. I actually really appreciate both encyclopedias, but found this statement a bit astonishing, at the top of one comparison article:

Searcher readers, especially those of us who went to library school, remember the hushed reverence with which the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the last published in the U.K., was spoken. Here was a classic work of scholarship that was so definitive, so monumental, that it was still unmatched decades after its completion in 1911.

--Berinstein, Paula, Searcher, 10704795, Mar2006, Vol. 14, Issue 3
(I'm learning about the importance of citation, and how to find websites that do it for you.)

Even before I learned that the 11th edition wrote in favor of the KKK, didn't include Marie Curie even though she'd won two Nobels, and wrote in favor of eugenics (yup, I've been reading the Britannica entry in Wikipedia), I assumed it would be Eurocentric and 19th century in tone. Hard to defend those statements ever, never mind in the late 20th century.

Having said that, I vote for both, as very different animals, both extremely useful and both with limitations. As long everyone is aware of those, why not use both? This debate seems like a prime example of this information revolution we're going through right now--what is knowledge, who owns it, who defines it. The old way says only certain people with certain methods can answer those questions. The new way says that everyone should have the right to have a voice in defining it--it's mushier, but certainly more egalitarian, or at least attempts to be.

I find it fascinating that as our society becomes what I might call more financially feudal--more money in increasingly in fewer hands--we are simultaneously increasing our individual insistence on defining for ourselves what The Truth is. Turns out that everyone's is different, which makes things a tad complicated. You could write a book about this stuff!

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