As many School and Public Libraries withdraw their multi-volumed encyclopaedias in preference for online information and research options, questions about the wisdom of this approach continue. In his article The Wikipedia revolution: Whatever happened to Britannica? Christian Polson-Brown of iiNet’s Social Media team examines the criticism levelled at Wikipedia and looks at the pros and cons for the traditional encyclopaedia vs. Wikipedia
Polsen- Brown begins with this brief overview:
Chances are if you were born before about 1992, rather than running to the Internet for help with school assignments, you turned to your family’s encyclopaedia set instead. Organised into alphabetical volumes, it was easy to get lost flicking through these books, finding obscure entries on faraway places, fascinating historical figures or strange animals. While the earliest encyclopaedias were compiled around 2000 years ago, the modern general purpose encyclopaedia arose around the middle of the 18th century. They were widely printed, popular, affordable, and found their way into homes across the world.
The mid 1990’s saw the rise of interactive multimedia CD-ROM encyclopaedias like Microsoft Encarta, which combined on screen text with videos and sound. Like their print counterparts though the information on these CD-ROMs was stored locally, and a new edition was required to update the knowledge contained within.
It wasn’t until Wikipedia began to explode in popularity during the mid-2000s that the encyclopaedia landscape was truly shaken up. There are currently over 4.5 million Wikipedia articles, a staggeringly greater number than the 40,000 or so that could be found in Britannica. You would be fighting a steep uphill battle to argue that the popularity of Wikipedia hasn’t been a driving force in marginalising the traditional Encyclopaedia companies. Even the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica has switched to an online only presence, ending print publication in 2012, after 244 years.
Polsen-Brown goes on to review the pros and cons of the digital and print systems and concludes that despite the arguments against reliance on the ‘move to Wikipedia style knowledge bases … Wikipedia really is a marvel of the modern age.’