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Encyclopedia Wars


Encyclopedia Wars

by Kenneth Lyen

Yesterday I went shopping for a new DVD encyclopedia. At the store, there were only two choices, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica 2005 DVD edition boasts of 101K articles, 18.5K images and multimedia entries, and 168K web links.

In contrast the Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005 DVD contains 68K articles, 26.4K illustrations, videos and animation, and 29K web links.

Both include an atlas, dictionary and thesaurus, plus online access to their own store of further information.

In the past I have bought both these encyclopedias. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. For me, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has a slightly greater depth of coverage, and because it is a few dollars cheaper than the Encarta, I finally decided on it.

Was I being a too extravagant? Did I really need to buy another DVD encyclopedia? I confess that I’m using my existing DVD encyclopedias less and less.

The reason for this is that I can get most of my information online. The Google search engine often brings me to a free web encyclopedia called the Wikipedia.

This encyclopedia made its debut on the web in January 2001. In a relatively short timespan it has quietly and surreptitiously grown and matured into a comprehensive and popular reference site. It has over 340K English-language articles, three times more than Britannica and five times more than Encarta.

The Encyclopedia Britannica pays 20 in-house editors to supervise 2,500 outside contributors. In contrast, Wikipedia contributors are volunteers whose services are donated for free. They write and amend their writings directly online. Many of them remain incognito, identified only by their computer's numerical internet address.

The ability of anybody to alter anything written is both Wikipedia’s strength and weakness. Pranksters or special interest groups can inflict damage by amending the articles. However, there is an increased vigilance by supporters of Wikipedia who will remove these mischievous postings.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has a very strict editorial process to ensure accuracy and balance in the information presented. There is no such strict policy in the Wikipedia. The accuracy of the latter’s contents is dependent on policing by visitors to this site. The last person to make amendments therefore carries the heaviest responsibility.

The major strength of the Wikipedia is its breadth of coverage. Compared to Britannica and Encarta, it is more topical with up-to-date news items, and certain subjects like popular culture, film, and sports are covered much better. There is an active online community, and contributors are encouraged to collaborate with one another. And of course, it is entirely free.

My major grouse about Wikipedia is that the coverage for the articles I’ve been looking for, has been generally patchy and a shade too superficial for my liking. Nevertheless the Wikipedia is an important advance in encyclopedia assembly, and points the way to the future.

In the past my father actually purchased a rather expensive multi-volume set of Encyclopaedia Britannica that is on display, gathering dust, in our family room. While I miss the luxury of lifting the heavy tomes, carefully turning the thin pages, and exploring the unrelated topics adjacent to the material I am searching, I haven’t touched it for several years. Computer editions are so much cheaper and convenient, that few homes now buy printed encyclopedias. The door-to-door encyclopedia salesman is an extinct species.

I foresee that it won’t be too long before I will save myself more money by forgoing the purchase of a DVD encyclopedia altogether.

Let me remind you that Bill Gates initially did not want to give away his Internet Explorer for free, claiming that he was not a communist. Reluctantly, he changed his mind, and gave away the program for free. It soon became the dominant internet browser. I would be interested to see if he would do likewise and give away Microsoft Encarta for free, and fight a non-intellectual fight in the encyclopedia wars!