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Slipping through the net

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The Encyclopaedia Britannica has at last succumbed to the inevitable. It will no longer be published in a print edition but is going online only. David Runciman’s 2009 review of The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih begins:

The best one-volume encyclopedia in the world used to be the Columbia Encyclopedia, first published by Columbia University Press in 1935. In our house we have the fifth edition, from 1993, and we still get it out occasionally to look up kings and queens and old-fashioned stuff like that. It’s a lovely book, fat but portable and full of nuggety little entries on most things you can think of. It also has quite a poignant preface, in which the editors talk about the difficulties of updating an encyclopedia in such a fast-changing world: they note how much history, politics, even geography they have had to revise since the collapse of the Soviet Empire just a couple of years earlier. They are clearly proud of their efforts to keep up to speed, but some things inevitably slip through the net. There are for example no entries for ‘email’, the ‘World Wide Web’ or the ‘internet’, all of which were just beginning to attract attention in 1993. The editors think the pace of change at the end of the 20th century means that traditional works of reference are going to have a hard time keeping up. Really they have no idea.

Comments on “Slipping through the net”

  1. philip proust says:

    ‘Really they have no idea.’ This seems to be an overly harsh and inaccurate judgement. ‘The editors think the pace of change at the end of the 20th century means that traditional works of reference are going to have a hard time keeping up.’ I fail to see how this eminently reasonable statement warrants David Runciman’s view that ‘the editors’ have ‘no idea’.

    • streetsj says:

      Philip, you have to read his piece – it’s about how wiki changed the whole process, not just the speed of change. That is what the Columbia’s editors had no idea about.
      (It’s well worth reading. I remember reading it when it came out but of the content i remembered nothing; so it was a real case of eating one’s cake and having it.)

  2. philip proust says:

    Thank you streetsj for your very polite suggestion. Reading Runciman’s article merely puts flesh on the claim ‘that traditional works of reference are going to have a hard time keeping up.’ In the course of the review of Lih’s book on Wikipedia, Runciman notes the extraordinary dimensions of the virtual encyclopaedia but he also concedes that Wikipedia struggles in some sense to match the virtues of the now outmoded model. It is not as though the old has necessarily been qualitatively outstripped by the new (though if you are doing research, quantity does matter, of course.)

    • streetsj says:

      Agreed. That’s why I thought it was such a good article – it wasn’t polemical, it was a balanced and open-minded assessment of how the reference book business had changed.
      I thought the German hybrid – where certain entries are closed to alteration and reposted in a curated section – sounded very promising. The best of both worlds perhaps…

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