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How The Web Ruined The Encyclopedia Business 623

prostoalex writes "Don't remember an encyclopedia salesman knocking at your door lately? Turns out, fewer Americans are purchasing layaway plans for heavy-bound multiple-volume sets (once sold at $1,400) and turning to the Web for answers, according to AP/Miami Herald. What's more interesting is that even the software encyclopedias are not selling as well, with Google changing the landscape of finding good reference information. 'Microsoft's $70 Encarta is the best seller but industrywide sales for encyclopedia software fell 7.3 percent in 2003 from 2002,' says Associated Press article."
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How The Web Ruined The Encyclopedia Business

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  • Or maybe (Score:5, Funny)

    by SpaceCadetTrav ( 641261 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:17PM (#8503269) Homepage
    Maybe people just stopped looking things up!
    • Re:Or maybe (Score:5, Funny)

      by freeze128 ( 544774 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:22PM (#8503347)
      That's because nobody wants to RTF Encyclopedia.
    • Re:Or maybe (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Maybe people just stopped looking things up!

      Yep. My ex-wife has to be one of them. Coz she surely thinks she know everything :)
    • by blorg ( 726186 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:49PM (#8503522)
      ...e.g. for reference works, the 'discovery' part of research. Free text search and the ability to jump easily to references using hyperlinks is simply invaluable. It was only towards the end of my time as an undergrad that I got to use stuff like JStor [] and it was incredibly good; free-text search through peer-reviewed journals going back over a century! I found stuff that I *never* would have relying on paper indexes.

      In the light of this I'm not surprised that the print sales are down. I'm perhaps more surprised that the electronic ones aren't doing better - results from the venerable Wikipedia [] (generally) excepted, I'd trust an encyclopedia before Google for general basic research. It's not so much a problem for me, but young people don't have as finely tuned BS detectors as older folks; they believe anything they read on the net. It's near impossible to get them to limit themselves to peer-reviewed sources in their papers, and they really do come back with some absolute crap from some random website.

      Parents would do well to consider this when weighing Google against a good CD/DVD-ROM or a subscription to; it's a lot cheaper than the print version used to be, and it's guaranteed quality information. Google is an invaluable tool, but it doesn't replace traditional sources of information. (At least until Google Print [] comes out of beta - then we really will be somewhere.)

      • Parent wrote: "results from the venerable Wikipedia (generally) excepted, I'd trust an encyclopedia"

        Regarding Wikipedia and trust, the "page history" feature on the left can help. Not only will the page history protect you against recent vandalism (i.e. in case you see a damaged page before someone has a chance to correct it); a frequently edited page with many contributors may be more reliable than a page that had less peer review.

        • by blorg ( 726186 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:21PM (#8503853)
          I don't think I phrased that terribly well - to clarify, I meant that I *would* trust Wikipedia more than the average Google result. I often run searches with '' appended. That said, I think I would trust it less than a published encyclopaedia; one of the issues I have with Wikipedia is the lack of author attribution. You've only got handles, and even then it's not easy to tell who wrote what. Britannica by contrast has attributed articles from many people eminent in their relative fields. The fact that it's such a fluid work also makes it difficult to cite (although you can reference specific revisions from the history page.) That's the nature of the beast, I know, it's a collaborative work. And it does work, for the most part, for what it is - a general encylopaedia. Traditionally, however, we tend to like to pin specific writings down to specific people. Each new piece of writing does not appear in a vacuum, but is from a known person. Even a site like Slashdot encourages from a registered account, and people take into account posting history, etc.
          • by prell ( 584580 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @11:20PM (#8505945) Homepage
            I read Wikipedia sometimes for hours at a day, and I admit that I always wonder how the writers of the articles knew so much, but at the same time, I've never doubted the factual base for the articles. There are usually (perhaps always) links in non-stub articles. Glancing through some of the books in my family's 30-book encyclopedia, I see no attribution at all for any of the entries. Granted, the writers of encyclopedias are ostensibly scholars with reputations on the line. However, the Wikipedia is live and can be updated by anyone and has version history. Also, as I mentioned, the Wikipedia articles have links and attribution. A sample article:

            Incidentally, my original intention on replying to this article was to mention that while I would not buy a paper encyclopedia, (the major benefits of the Wikipedia being: content flux; contribution; instant searches; massive amount of content along with an infinite space for growth) I would gladly give money to the Wikipedia. The latest fund drive for the Wikipedia generously exceeded its goals within hours, so obviously I'm not the only one.

            If I may be bold for a moment, I'd also like to point out that the spirit of the first encyclopedia was to be knowledge of the people and for the people, so that everyone may be educated. If the web (again, a series of "ends") were available in the sixteenth century, the encyclopedia, I'd argue, would not have been published in medium as expensive, bulky and unportable as paper. When was the last time you sat down and opened the encyclopedia instead of using the web?

            To read more about the concept of encyclopaedia in dozens of languages:
      • by Mose250 ( 724946 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:12PM (#8503762)
        I'm not sure exactly how you'd define "young people," but it's been my experience that the fallability of internet resources has been one of the most common topics drilled into the heads of middle- and high-school students, at least in the past decade or so. When I was in middle and high school (not too many years ago), we had entire class periods dedicated to learning which sources are worthy of taking a look at, how to check for bias, and which sites aren't worth anything (read: anything from geocities, for example, or anything with little animated "Under Construction" gifs). Use of the internet was encouraged to be limited and mostly supplemental; use of periodical indexes (such as Jstor) was highly encouraged.

        That's really where the power of the internet is, as you point out - in the specialized reference engines that are freely available to just about any college student and most high school students. For home use, there are other specialized reference engines depending on what you want to look up ( comes to mind for physicians). But remember, we're talking about general information here, not writing a thesis - usually you'd use an encyclopedia just to get an the basic idea of a topic, something that a quick google scan or a free online reference site can almost always accomplish.
        • by blorg ( 726186 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @08:00PM (#8504252)
          ...but that doesn't mean that they can spell, construct a grammatical sentence, or logically and coherently advance an argument. My experience was teaching undergraduate level in Ireland. I wasn't teaching English, but found that most of my efforts in correcting papers had to be directed towards fixing these elements.

          I'm not still teaching myself, but I've heard a lot to suggest that the upsurge of the internet has exacerbated problems which were only starting to appear in my day. My girlfriend teaches final year school as well as third level, and besides the plagarism issue, many of her students just can't get it into their heads why a random page on the internet should not be given as much weight as an expert in the field. She has gone over it with them, but they are lazy - they want to use the internet exclusively for research as it's easy, whereas going to the library is too much effort.

          Part of the problem is that here (in my experience- in the humanities), any half-serious research methodology classes only appear at the postgraduate level. It might be touched on slightly earlier in certain subjects such as history, if you chose a manuscripts option. I agree as to the importance: at a minimum it should be the *first* thing taught in university, and preferably should be introduced even further back in the school system. Research methodology is the humanities is like 'planning' in programming, and it's insane that it just isn't emphasised early enough.
      • by johnlenin1 ( 140093 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @08:31PM (#8504494)
        Free text search and the ability to jump easily to references using hyperlinks is simply invaluable.

        I completely agree. However, I would also add that print indexes still retain an enormous value. I've often discovered a thread while browsing in an index that was perfect for the task at hand--and something I might not have otherwise thought to consider.

      • by demachina ( 71715 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @10:56PM (#8505658)
        ...but they have one critical flaw...transience. If the Internet develops a maturity where it can preserve valuable information then it might deserve to replace encyclopedias and books in general.

        I remember in my childhood fondly looking through an encyclopedia from the 1930's,not because the information was necessarily the most useful because it wasn't current, but because it was a priceless snapshot of the era. It remains to be seen of the Internet will preserve this kind of snapshot of a time or will information always churn, so it is always current which is good for current research, but will it tend to develop some amnesia about the past. By this I don't mean it will lose the great works, because it wont, but will it preserve the smaller but still interesting details of each era.

        The way back machine is a very noble effort at trying to preserve this kind of snapshot of the Internet but will it survive and build for 100's or 1000's of years like great books and libraries have?

        Enlightened societies have fought hard to preserve books from destruction especially by onslaughts from violent and ignorant warrior cultures. The question is will we be both motivated and adept at preserving digital information. Books last 100's of years. Do we have digital storage media that will do the same or will have to rely on constant duplication of information to preserve it. It seems possible the Internet may preserve information intuitively because it tends to replicate and disperse useful information.

        The other obvious problem with the Internet is it is causing an explostion in the volume of information which has to be filtered and preserved. Will the quality information lift its head above the sea of garbage when it comes time to preserve it. Google rankings tend to lift up the quality information but is that enough or do we need an army of editors to raise the valuable so it doesn't drown.
    • Re:Or maybe (Score:5, Funny)

      by prockcore ( 543967 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:49PM (#8503524)
      Maybe people just stopped looking things up!

      I find that completely colorable. Kids' dilatoriness cause them to be parsimonious.
      • Re:Or maybe (Score:3, Funny)

        by Jim Hall ( 2985 )

        I find that completely colorable. Kids' dilatoriness cause them to be parsimonious.

        You must have the "Learn-a-word" toilet paper? :_)

  • Wikipedia []. I'm sure everybody knows about it by now, but it's a great source of information for just about anything you can imagine.

    • everything2 [] is also excellent and offers some great insight and even advice.
    • by asmellysock ( 649878 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:20PM (#8503319)
      What concerns me about Wikipedia is that I don't think any particular credentials are required to publish an article in it. I think something like Britannica would have tougher standards.
      • You are correct (Score:5, Informative)

        by Raul654 ( 453029 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:34PM (#8503428) Homepage
        (Full disclosure - I'm a wikipedia admin) - The premise of Wikipedia is that you can write an article on everything. Unlike major encyclopedias (which might go through 2 or 3 pairs of eyes tops), though, everything on Wikipedia gets peer reviewed many times over. I've seen articles where several dozen people who have modified it. In and of itself, that's an effective form of peer review.
        • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Insightful)

          by cgranade ( 702534 ) <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:50PM (#8503547) Homepage Journal

          Problem is, would this lead to a tyranny of the majority? If something like Wikipedia were around in Gallileo's time, would it ever say that the earth is round?

          Now, Wikipedia may very well have a method of dealing with this problem, but I am not aware of it. Can someone offer insights?

          • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Gyan ( 6853 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:53PM (#8503569)
            Whatever's counted as scientific 'fact' today is also due to consensus.
            • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Hiro Antagonist ( 310179 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:26PM (#8503905) Journal
              Consensus and evidence. Science doesn't espouse things like evolution and gravity because they have popular support; they are considered scientific fact because of the wealth of evidence supporting them, and when new evidence comes to light, even well-established theories get thrown out on their ear. Popular support won't get you very far in science unless you have solid, credible evidence to back it up.

              This is what gets the creationists and the flat-earth types all in a twist; they can't present credible evidence to the scientific community to support their claims, so they claim that there is some sort of conspiracy against them, when nothing could be further from the truth.
          • Re:You are correct (Score:3, Interesting)

            by jbolden ( 176878 )
            In Gallileo's time everyone who was educated agreed with world was round. In fact as far as we have written records of science the educated have always believed the world is round. Its an anticatholic myth spread during the enlightenment / age of reason that this was ever in serious dispute.
          • Response (Score:5, Informative)

            by Raul654 ( 453029 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:55PM (#8503600) Homepage
            The Wikipedia guidelines explicetely say "Wikipedia wants generally accepted facts". We recently had a contributor who added a large number of crank theories into articles presenting them as facts. (For example - "Albert Einstien was an incorrible plaguarist who got all of his great ideas by plaguarizing the documents he had access to while he was a patent clerk"). Essentially, we'll take a certain amoung of fringe theory, as long as it is presented that way. The user in quesiton, by the way, was banned about 2 weeks later for persistent trolling - the entire community wanted his gone.
          • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Insightful)

            by daviddennis ( 10926 ) <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:57PM (#8503606) Homepage
            I'm not sure how good that argument is, considering that an encyclopedia published in Gallileo's time would be subject to similar pressures and would probably also claim the earth is flat.

          • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Insightful)

            by MoonBuggy ( 611105 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:58PM (#8503619) Journal
            Good point, but it's made redundant by the fact that Galileo was silenced in his time anyway. If the fact were that Wikipedia would censor something otherwise published then your point is fair, but instead it would censor something that was censored anyway.

            Also modern society is much more diverse in ideas. While many subjects are taboo, the likelihood is there will be people open minded enough to accept people think differently to them and leave the articles as they are.
          • Irony (Score:5, Insightful)

            by ArsSineArtificio ( 150115 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:06PM (#8503696) Homepage
            Problem is, would this lead to a tyranny of the majority? If something like Wikipedia were around in Gallileo's time, would it ever say that the earth is round?

            It's funny that somebody pleading for reliability in scientific knowledge believes that Galileo's unpopular theory was that the earth was round.

        • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Insightful)

          by DunbarTheInept ( 764 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:59PM (#8503627) Homepage
          There are two problems with that:

          One is that you don't see the collective result of *everybody* peer reveiwing the entry - you are only guranteed to get the result of the last person who edited the entry. So if 1000 people agreed with an entry that said "X is true", and one person edited it to say "X is false", if that one person is the most recent person to have touched it, then *his* version of things is all you'll see. You're only guaranteed to see a version which is in agreement with the previous viewer's opinions, not a version that is an average of everyone's opinions that came before him. One person can wipe out an entire years worth of peer review on an entry in a single moment.

          The other problem is that even if it does reflect accurately the opnions of all the 'peers' who reviewed it, the entry will then only be accurate in those areas where public opinion reflects the truth. This is often not the case when the public is poorly informed. I'd much rather read an encyclopedia article on nuclear power that was edited and approved by nuclear scientists than one that was edited and approved by a collection of J. Random Users. Science is one area where this can be a problem, and any area where stereotyping by the public is common is another. (For example, let's say I (an atheist) got invited to witness someone's pagan summer solstice celebrations. Before I decide if I want to do that, I'd like to read up on what those celebrations entail. I'd trust a source that I kenw was written by actual pagans on the matter before I'd trust a source that was written by the public at large, given that such a source is likely to contain incorrect stereotypes.)
          • Re:You are correct (Score:5, Informative)

            by Raul654 ( 453029 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:09PM (#8503721) Homepage
            1) Logged in users have access to a "watchlist." It tells you when the articles you are watching were last changed. So if someone comes along and wipes out a years worth of work, it will be reverted very, very quickly (all changes are reverseble).

            2) You make two mistaken assumptions. (A) Not everyone edits all articles - people tend to stick to what they know. Therefore, articles are generally edited by informed users. (B) A lot of Wikipedia's changes (50%, if I had to guess) come from a relatively small pool of very active contributors (200 or so), most of whom are very well educated. If you look up an article on Nuclear physics, you'll probably get something that was written by someone majoring in/with a BS in physics or chemistry. So it's not PHDs, but it's not Joe Q Average either.
      • by cmowire ( 254489 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:42PM (#8503482) Homepage
        Wikipedia worries me less than Google.

        With Wikipedia, there's the assumptions that there is at least a few people who might know something about a topic who happen upon it. Just because there's no "formal" criticism of the content doesn't mean that it doesn't get critiqued and fact-checked.

        Google, on the other hand, has no fact checking ability. And, making things worse, for Google to fact check itself would ruin all of the reasons why people would want to use it in the first place.

        So there's really no way to prevent somebody's kid from somehow managing to confuse neo-nazi websites for reliable sources while writing a paper about Hitler.
        • Google, on the other hand, has no fact checking ability. And, making things worse, for Google to fact check itself would ruin all of the reasons why people would want to use it in the first place.

          I agree. I was contacted to block a website through our school district web filter.


          It's purely a hate/descrimination web site and the domain name [] is owned by a known white supremacist [] organization. But the kids that find sites like these view them as if they are fact! Kids don't do a whois search. It doesn't even enter into their minds that someone would post misleading and false information on the web. A simple Google search [] turns up all sorts of "information" that points to this "factual" website.

          Part of me needs to block it, but kids need to see this stuff too, otherwise they'll leave school and suddenly vast swaths of the web are now "unhidden" and they won't know what to believe. Maybe I don't give kids enough credit, but it's a troubling thought that our censorship of the web might be doing more harm in the long run, and I'm a part of that.

      • But how long will it take for something like the Chewbacca Defense [] to make it into Encarta?

        Wikipedia rules!!
    • by karlwick ( 747209 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:33PM (#8503982)
      Just as Wikipedia is undoing the encyclopedia industry with a high-quality, free product, so Wikibooks ( ) is set to do to the textbook industry.
  • Lobbying (Score:5, Funny)

    by funny-jack ( 741994 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:17PM (#8503283) Homepage
    The Encylopedia Industry just needs a lobby. How about EIAA? Sue and whine when your business model fails to make money. It's the American Way.
    • Re:Lobbying (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Saeger ( 456549 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (jllerraf)> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:50PM (#8503546) Homepage
      I think they should all just get together under an umbrella group called "Old Farts for Ye Olde $tatus Quo".

      A quote I have hanging on my wall:

      "Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new."
      -- Niccolo Machiavelli

      That will only become more true as the pace of change quickens. Artificial scarcity be damned.

      (Right beside that quote I've also got a few Singularity [] quotes, about the exponential nature of progress, and the likelihood [] of mankind surving these next few critical decades.)


  • by Roger Keith Barrett ( 712843 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:17PM (#8503285)
    Candle sales down... candlemakers blame the electric light bulb.

    the candlemaker lobby are asking for sanctions to keep the vital candle market afloat.

    • Re:in other news... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by KingOfBLASH ( 620432 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:28PM (#8503387) Journal
      (Note to moderators: Please be patient. This is ontopic, albeit directly related to the parent post.)

      You ever read Ayn Rand's Anthem? If not you should, it's a really good book. As a matter of fact, one of the premises of the book was what would happen if there was a society more interested in the status quo and change (modeled after the commies). There were a lot of interesting points -- one of which was that light bulbs would never be made because the industry of candlemakers would be put out of business. And if you don't benefit your fellow man, you must be evil.

      Sometimes I wish I were a literary nerd so I could explain things better. Oh well, here's [] a link to a Wikipedia summary.

      • by NSash ( 711724 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:18PM (#8503815) Journal
        You ever read Ayn Rand's Anthem? If not you should, it's a really good book.

        I'll have to take your word for it. I've spent enough time reading Ayn Rand's ravings -- time I'll never recover. Her political writing vacillates between the blindingly obvious and the blindingly stupid, and I doubt her fiction is any more meritorious.

        • by Hiro Antagonist ( 310179 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:33PM (#8503980) Journal
          I'll have to take your word for it. I've spent enough time reading Ayn Rand's ravings -- time I'll never recover. Her political writing vacillates between the blindingly obvious and the blindingly stupid, and I doubt her fiction is any more meritorious.

          I'm not a Randroid or an Objectivist, but I have read and enjoyed both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead; her two first real novels, as I recall. Both were fantastic, and both made very solid points about a number of good things -- the power of the unfettered mind, the crime of stealing the fruits of one's labor, and the travesty of assuming that the best world is one in which everyone is equal. We need our geniuses, just as we need our burger-flippers.

          The problem is, after these were written, Rand started buying into her own press. She started writing crap like Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She took some good general ideas, and made very bad hard-and-fast rules of of them, completely ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

          In this, Rand is an example of exactly how one should not handle criticism. Instead of reconsidering her viewpoints in light of constructive critique, she violently lashed out at anyone who questioned her Divine Word.

          But that doesn't mean that she didn't have some good ideas.
    • You don't have a girlfriend, do you? Trust me, candle makers are doing just fine.
  • by mfivis ( 592345 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:18PM (#8503297) Homepage
    I'd pay money for an encyclopedia that didn't have an entry [] about goatse.
    • by Raul654 ( 453029 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:36PM (#8503445) Homepage
      The Goatse article was Wikipedia's 7th [] most active article in February, with 24,425 hits.
    • Wikipedia (Score:3, Insightful)

      by yintercept ( 517362 )
      Wikipedia is a great place to find out the current popular interpretations of history and other subjects. They've done a great job at SEO and are likely to become the most influential single source of information on the net on most topics. I notice Wikipedia shows up on the first page for most of my internet searches these days. It is a bit scary having one source that is that influential.

      Of course, one of the great things about Wikipedia is that you can read the editing history of the items, and see the
  • by JeffSh ( 71237 ) <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:19PM (#8503305)
    I can't begin to state how much having the internet has affected myself, and society as a whole.

    Never before have the key values of resourcefulness and problem solving been so apparant in individuals and the work place, where before wrote memorized knowledge was necessary.

    Having the internet, and refined resourcefulness trumps anyone who has wrote memorized anything. With the internet as a resource, instead of a 30 book bound volume set of encyclopedias, a resourceful person can find answers and implement them in minutes, where before it could take an hour to find information, and then more than a few hours to then find that information was OUT OF DATE.

    i love the internet and everything it's done for me. I'm not a super genius, but being extremely efficient and resourceful, and knowing how to use google, has made me look like a fricken star both to peers and my employer.

    • by mapmaker ( 140036 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:47PM (#8503511)
      Of course, rote memorization does have its usefulness.

      Such as remembering the proper spellings of homonyms. :)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      ... apparant ... wrote memorized knowledge ... has wrote memorized ... i love the internet ... fricken star

      I'm not a super genius


      Having access to information is a wonderful thing, but that access doesn't make the user somehow any more able to use those facts than they otherwise would have been. It simply means that you can copy-paste some text from a web site, not that you actually learn anything from doing so.

      If you "look like a fricken star" then I'd have to say that your peers and employ

    • mastery (Score:4, Insightful)

      by GCP ( 122438 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:11PM (#8503746)
      It's hard to be a master of anything without a lot of memorization. If you don't have the core information in your head already, you're not qualified for most serious professions, though I admit that having online access to so much information does affect even the way a master will allocate his study time and effort.

    • by Genjurosan ( 601032 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @08:07PM (#8504317)
      The internet has ruined truth. I don't know how many times in a week I get an e-mail from friends and others stating this and that.. To the average person that can't navigate around and find the TRUTH... the internet has become a cluster fsck of lies, half-truths, and etc...

      So it's good from your point of view, but all to often someone that spouts how they 'looked it up' on google has no basis for the information they found.
  • by Captain Rotundo ( 165816 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:20PM (#8503316) Homepage
    Everyone always uses "Google" when they just mean any old search engine. AS if the streets would be filled with encyclopedia salesmen if we all used Yahoo! and AltaVista.

    Second, have you noticed that MS gives Encarta away with everything ?

    Third: Duh! Universal free access to a worldwide information store is eliminating the need for large, expensive and quickly obsoleted books? My god stop the presses. In other news the Edison wax cylinder is no longer used in favour of a strange plastic disc read by lazers, wax salesman frieghtened.
    • by brunes69 ( 86786 ) <slashdot.keirstead@org> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:32PM (#8503422) Homepage
      Everyone always uses "Google" when they just mean any old search engine. AS if the streets would be filled with encyclopedia salesmen if we all used Yahoo! and AltaVista.

      Actually, it would be *far* more likely if Google had never come around. Google is the single driving force that has pushed and pushed at the other search engines to try and keep up ( sites like Teoma and the new Yahoo are getting closer in terms of accuracy, but Google has been at the top for so long now that it has found its brand name being added to the dictionary as a verb, and is constantly appearing in pop culture references like TV shows and Movies. You can't pay for that kind of advertising ).

      If it weren't for Google pioneering the slick, streamlined search interface, the massive popup banners and "portal" monstrosities of AltaVista and Yahoo would still be the standard.. in fact, they would probably be even worse.

      And thus, if it weren't for Google, searching for stuff on the internet would still be so incredibly painful and take so long that I could probably find it faster in the Britannica.

      People just don't give Google enough credit. They totally revolutionized their space, and are still revolutionizing it( check out Google labs [] if you don't believe me ). You don't see many companies doing that nowadays.

  • by mumblestheclown ( 569987 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:21PM (#8503325)
    I'm the kind who had the report due on SPACE.

    Trust me. []

  • by HuguesT ( 84078 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:22PM (#8503340)
    This is a really good illustration that even for a great deal of scholastic knowledge, a distributed effort is better than a concerted one.

    For very specialized knowledge encyclopedias are still useful, and it's hard (for me at least) to discount the pleasure of opening a volume at random and learning about something I never had the first idea about. Sure you can try the same trick with the web though I'm not sure the results would be the intended one...

    For a while the Britannica was free online, but this is no longer the case.
  • by Chairboy ( 88841 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:26PM (#8503365) Homepage
    The web makes is easier to find information fast, and with no tie to physical medium, yes, but when it comes to the veracity of the information, it can be difficult to make a case for whether or not it is accurate.

    Anybody can type anything and have it show up on the web. Most of the time, it is even well-meaning information, eg, with the intent of being accurate. The issue is that people sometimes make mistakes. When you're writing about who your favorite Pokemon character is, mistaking the stats of Pikachu for Megamonkey isn't that bad. When you're posting information about a medical procedure or tolerances on a shear pin, though, being wrong can literally be the difference between life and death. The advantage encyclopedias have over web content is that everything much pass peer review and fact checkers.

    I predict that while the 'paper encyclopedia' business may suffer in the future, the businesses that generate the content may begin to restore revenue by offering information that is in digitally signed chunks of information that an end user can be sure of or by offering fact checking services for people who can sacrifice context for finding out if a specific fact is true. Maybe a publically available article about gunpowder will give me all the steps needed to safely make it, but I might then pay $.5 to ask an intelligent software agent at to read the URL of that public article and tell me if it's accurate or not.

    I love encyclopedias, and I think there will be a market for them well into the future (people still buy dictionaries, don't they?), but part of capitalism is keeping your business relevant, and it looks like the encyclopedia companies have some challenges ahead of them.
  • by sdcharle ( 631718 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:27PM (#8503380) Journal
    A friend's kid turned in a report on General Lee full of references to a 'Boss Hogg', a guy named 'Roscoe P. Coltrane', and some woman named 'Daisy', and it turns out that wasn't what the teacher had in mind.
  • by black_widow ( 41044 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:27PM (#8503384) Homepage
    [given two things:
    1. they are still available
    2. i actually end up with kids one day]

    I spent a lot of time when I was 6-12 years old reading my parents encyclopedia's and old college textbooks from cover to cover. I can still recall a lot of things (over 20 years later) that I read when I was a kid that have stuck with me, without further exposure or reinforcement.

    Actually, scratch #1 up there, if they aren't available, I'll find an antique set for them.
    • Find an antique set anyway. When I was a kid we had two sets of the Book of Knowledge, one from 1962 and one from 1911. The 1911 one was a look into the past, filled with French lessons (apparently assuming all well-educated children should speak French), articles about pre-revolutionary Russia (the only kind that existed back then) and stories and poems that are almost forgotten now, among many other things. I remember in particular a picture of "the train of the future" which was apparently what we would
  • Shocking! (Score:3, Funny)

    by YouHaveSnail ( 202852 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:29PM (#8503396)
    I'm shocked! Old businesses with a strong attachment to their traditional business model are finding it difficult to change, you say? And to add injury to insult, you also tell me that they're suffering economically for this very reason? I can hardly believe it. Why, next you'll tell me that our beloved American recording industry has also fallen prey to the ogre that is technology, and that the telephone companies are having to scramble to avoid obsolescence...
  • by yagu ( 721525 ) <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:29PM (#8503397) Journal

    RIAA claims decrease in Encarta due to illegal downloading and swapping.
  • by elchulopadre ( 466393 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:30PM (#8503401)
    I'll be the first to say that, for encyclopedia-level research, I do just about ALL of it online. Don't think there's anyone on this site who does any differently.

    But, as a teenager, I got a full Encyclopaedia Brittanica from my grandmother as a gift. And the nerd in me couldn't keep me from picking up a random volume, leafing through it and waiting for something to catch my eye.

    The variation on that would be that I'd look something up, and, in the process of finding the right page, some other entry would catch my eye and I'd read up on something (usually completely unrelated) after finding what I'd originally gone looking for.

    Hypertext kicks ass. Ain't no arguing against that one. But search engines show you what you were looking for - it's a lot harder to 'stumble across' completely unexpected stuff on online reference engines. I ain't buying another paper encyclopedia, to be sure... at least not at the price my grandmother paid for mine... but, in the quest for pure, unadulterated trivia, there ain't nothing like it...
  • by mev ( 36558 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:32PM (#8503416) Homepage
    Don't remember encyclopedia salesmen knocking on your door lately

    Unfortunately, I remember encylopedia salesmen a bit too well. During mid 1980s I received an offer that said "free desk reference set if you respond". I responded and when the salesman went to schedule a sales appointment, I told him "you are welcome to come, but I have no intention of buying encyclopedia Britanica." He said then he wouldn't come. I pointed out that their offer still said, "free desk reference set" and this seemed like a fraudulent business practice. His response was, "then take it up with the FTC."

    So, I wrote the FTC and the local BBB. I also sent a copy in care of "Presidents office, Encyclopedia Britanica". My letter didn't get any visible response from FTC or BBB, but I did get a phone call from the legal office at Encyclopedia Britanica. They carefully explained that what happened was not their policy. Shortly thereafter a local rep of Encyclopedia Britanica called to apologize, indicated that the salesperson had been fired and came to provide both a sales call and desk reference set. I listened politely, said "no thanks" and still feel bad for causing someone to lose their job.

  • At one time... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DrXym ( 126579 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:33PM (#8503423)
    Britannica offered a free online service. It was very useful, and the articles were 1st rate but then they started to charge for it. That's understandable in some ways, but in a web where most stuff is free, who is going to fork out for something they look at once in a while? I don't know if another model would have worked, but obviously a free site (with deals with AOL, Yahoo! etc.) and banner ads might attract enough people for them to profit from advertising alone.

    I haven't used the DVD version, but I assume the articles are as good. By comparison MS Encarta is a joke. It has a lot of articles but they're half the length of Britannica's at best. The atlas is good though and is probably the killer feature in the 'Deluxe' version and it's the reason I own it.

    I guess the ultimate encyclopedia would combine the articles from Britannica with the atlas from Encarta.

    Still, neither of them is free. Happily Wikipedia has filled that vacuum quite nicely. I'm sure some of the content is pretty dodgy (or pointless), but it does benefit from a great breadth of articles and a keen team of volunteer editors to keep it going.

  • Freedom... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 222 ( 551054 ) * <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:36PM (#8503443) Homepage
    Im sorry to sound crass, but the overwhelming cost of encyclopedias was:
    1)The cost of printing. This is expensive when you consider the cost of 24 Hardcover books.
    2)The cost of fact checking. Again, this is expensive, as your credibility relies on your information being correct.

    With the freedom of information that the internet has provided us, (1) is a non-issue. (2) However, is still an important one. As we all know, just because its posted on the internet (in duplicate at times!) its not always true. In the end, you might just end up with what you paid for, or you might end up reading a factual, cutting edge lab study that was posted the week previous. Personally? I use wikopedia and when im looking up something that piques my interest. When im writing a paper? I'm going to be hitting up a libray and dusting off an encylopedia. Sure i'd use internet sources (read:google) as a tool, but id be extremely carefull with my sources.
    • In addition to (2) being important for the internet, I think a valid consideration is how persistant is the information available online going to be in the future. servers are renamed, shut down, reorganized, and so on. Is it going to be commonplace for a person to archive their own versions of someone elses web site in the case that the site closes down? Wikipedia is very popular, if it shuts down in the future, what happens? All of that knowledge could be scattered. If an encyclopedia publishing company
  • by sharkb8 ( 723587 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:38PM (#8503462)
    I seem to remember ads in 1994 you that could fit an ENTIRE ENCYCLOPEDIA onto just one CD-rom, and that it would also include movies, interactive pictures, etc?

    For bound encyclopedias, it's a cost/benefit analysis. For $1400, you can get 2 1/2 years of high speed internet access, with pretty much all the information you can handle. Encyclopedias are just too expensive for what you get.
  • by octal666 ( 668007 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:42PM (#8503481)
    Net has a lot of information, but excluding some projects as wikipedia or project gutenberg, you can't allways trust the source. Here in Spain I've been hoaxes believed and reaching the mass media just because "Internet said it". Not everything in the net is trustable, and a good encyclopedia, at least, has a name you can cite. Also, encyclopedias use to have a neutral point of view, so important in wikipedia, some would remind, and it's not the same information and opinion. Obviously encyclopedias, in printed format, are outdated quickly, but the problem is paper, not the thing itself, probably going online and digital is the best way to compete with a Google that is not what it used to and an Internet full of hoaxes and not so neutral points of view where finding truth is too hard.
  • by Hamster Lover ( 558288 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:47PM (#8503513) Journal
    I recall a specifc project in Social Studies that requied the class to make an economic comparison of the G7 countries. My only source was the Encyclopedia Britannica and the information was already six years out of date. Of course, I lost marks for using out of date information. Where else could a high school student obtain up to date economic information? I wasn't about to go through every issue of Business Weekly to get it.

    With the Internet, I could have that information in a few minutes, even seconds if I find a good source. Encyclopedias just cannot compete with such instantaneous and nearly cost free knowledge.

    James Burke has touched on this phenomenon is his latest series of books. That the explosion and specialization of knowledge has lead to where we are today, that no one really "knows" anything anymore and that as soon as something is discovered it is obsolete. Those that will prosper the most in the future will have skills that lead to them the sources of knowledge they require without the need to retain that knowledge for themselves (his theory).
  • by Chibi ( 232518 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:49PM (#8503525) Journal

    Encyclopedias hold a special place in my heart. When I was entering college, some of my older relatives decided to dump, excuse me, bless me with their collection of encyclopedias from the early 80s. Ah, yes, these 15 year old fountains of knowledge would really be a blessing for me to get the most out of my college education.

    Years later, as I was cleaning out the house, I came across a dusty pile of now 20-year old encyclopedias. I was going to throw them out, but then said relatives looked on me with disdain, at how I was throwing away their precious gifts. They said they would take them, rather than allow them to be thrown away. 2 months later, when they never came to pick them up, I threw them out. And they've never asked about them again. Although, knowing these relatives, they'd probably demand I pay them the "fair" value of the books. So, not what they'd be worth to someone who lives in the real world (absolutely nothing), but the price they paid for the books + interest + inflation. Gotta love family...

    • by McSpew ( 316871 )

      2 months later, when they never came to pick them up, I threw them out.

      No offense, but paper books have value, even if only as relics of a bygone age. But to think that you threw out a set of encyclopedias breaks my heart. Okay, so much of the information would be hopelessly out of date (geography, for certain), but there's still a LOT of useful info in even a 20-year-old encyclopedia, and it's criminal that you just threw it out. Didn't you at least think about donating to the Salvation Army or Goodw

  • by onyxruby ( 118189 ) <<ten.tsacmoc> <ta> <yburxyno>> on Monday March 08, 2004 @06:58PM (#8503620)
    My experience that weened me from using encyclopedias. It was 95 or 96 and my teacher for an international business class in college wanted us to do research on a country of our choise using only the Internet. This was a several day assignment, and part way through the first class I got called out by the teacher in front of the students because I was photoshopping game pieces for one of the civ games. Conversation went roughly like this:

    Teacher. Onyxruby, are you done already?
    Me. Yup
    Teacher. Really? Just where did you get all information?
    Me. CIA
    Classroom. Laughter breaks out.
    Teacher. Your telling me you got information from the CIA?
    Me. That's what I just said.
    Teacher. Care to share this treasure trove with the class.
    Me. Sure.

    Teacher gets back there expecting to see that I'm bullshitting her. I show her:

    Everything she wanted from per capita income to the number of tv's was in there. Look on her face went from sheer disbelief to righteous indignation as she started writing it on the white board for the whole class to read. I haven't looked back at encyclopedias since.
  • by Tim Browse ( 9263 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:15PM (#8503782)

    You also need checking that an entry reads well, makes sense, and is informative.

    A few people have mentioned Wikipedia - my first experience of it came when someone on slashdot linked to an article in a comment a few weeks back.

    It was an article about Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower []. Not knowing what it was, but knowing Tesla was generally an interesting guy with some weird theories, I decided to have a look.

    Go and have a look, and see if you can work out what the hell the Wardenclyffe Tower is, or what it is for. I was at least halfway through the article before I had much of a clue, and even then I don't think I was sure. That's just bad writing.

    I love this part from the 3rd paragraph of the article:

    In 1903, the tower structure was near completion, although it was not yet functional due to a design error

    Me: "Yeah, but you haven't told us what the function is yet!"

  • Too bad... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jasno ( 124830 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:17PM (#8503799) Journal
    I've long since abandoned my cellulose encyclopedia collection for the information crack dealer known affectionately as Google. But when I was a kid, my favorite books were my collection of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to spend hours following a thread from volume to volume, or just reading them straight through. It exposed me to a lot of diverse topics that I probably never would have come across by doing directed searches on Google. The information wasn't as current as whats available on the web, but it was much more complete and trustworthy. Also, I still don't think I absorb information from a CRT as easily as I do with a book.

    Parents should really consider postponing their child's computer training and let them spend a few quiet afternoons with books. Besides, I want my kids to see computers as a tool to get things done, and not an end unto themselves(lest I create one more slashdot reader).

    And no, I don't sell encyclopedias. :)
  • Web Is Incomplete (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 4of12 ( 97621 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:19PM (#8503838) Homepage Journal

    I'd love it if Google and the Web were able to produce comprehensive survey articles and concise in-depth analysis. But, as much as is out there, and as good as some of it is, it's not yet a replacement for much of dead tree literature.

    Just searching the indeces on SciSearch for articles gives a lot more references in technical areas than just searching what's been put on the web so far (what, maybe 20-50% of what's been produced between 1992-2004?).

    Unfortunately, copyright restrictions will prevent my ultimate dream from being realized: having everything that has been published put on-line and indexed and freely searched and accessed. I mean things like Lord Kelvin's papers, the collected notebooks of Ramanujan, the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, etc.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:32PM (#8503966)
    I know a number of people that have worked at Brittanica over the years, and the stories I've heard come out of that place are unbelievable.

    "Owning" perhaps the greatest body of encyclopaedic content at one point and:

    1. Refusing to come up with a CD-ROM strategy, for fear of cannibalizing book sales. Encarta comes along and eats their lunch.

    2. Refusing to come up with a web strategy for many of the same reasons. The Internet itself eats their lunch.

    3. In their defense, they did eventually try to come up with a number of ways to sell/license/share the content, but they were unwieldy and involved dividing the information into about 9 different online/CD/library/educational properties (I'm not kidding). Even their developers could hardly keep them straight.

    4. Along the way, they came up with a crazy homegrown network to deal with global access, user profiles, and content updates. From what I heard, it was cutting edge, but it essentially was an attempt to "Akamai" the content in-house. After spending many, many millions of dollars, they outsourced the hosting and management after all.

    5. One of the early "Jedi masters" of Search Engine Optimization spent considerable time and effort advising them on how to optimize their site. They made this a back-burner job for about a year, and eventually declined to execute it. Had they executed this correctly, today the entire body of content would be well-googled and highly ranked, giving them traffic potential revenue streams (if they hadn't eventually just closed ranks and made the whole thing a pay site, of course.)

    6. Instead, they spent their time and money on things like this: paying $150k per month for a tiny text link on lycos' home page. I know a bunch of companies blew money on things like this (usually with AOL extracting the cash) but they were literally re-strategizing several times a year, and throwing out millions of dollars worth of development hours.

    With all that said, it's really too bad, because I found that the developers and some editors are among the most brilliant people I've encountered. For the most part, they had educations of a completely different caliber (MIT, Oxford, Carnegie-Mellon, etc.) but were surprisingly down-to-earth, not name-dropping their Universities in the first 12 seconds of your conversation, for example.

    Sadly, the management did not fit that mold. Privileged, self-righteous, cocky, arrogant PHBs. Piss away $millions a year on aforementioned goose chases and blame it on everyone else. I think the only reason it went on like this (and still does) is because the entire operation is owned by an 85-year-old Swiss billionaire who really doesn't seem to care about it, and the executive team keeps him in the dark.

    It doesn't surprise me at all to see it all dying, considering this was once one of the premier brands of the medium.
  • Our library shells out big bucks for web access to some databases and journals.

    In this, non-porn searches are similar to porn searches: the good stuff costs. (Not that I'd know anything about this, of course!) Lexus/Nexus search, anyone?
  • by abe ferlman ( 205607 ) <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:33PM (#8503973) Homepage Journal
    I mean seriously, the knowledge was always too general or out-of-date to be of use even before the internet unless you were writing a high school report on what Rwanda is like or something. I say good riddance.

    Anyone remember that long-blonde-haired teenage encyclopedia pitch guy in the late 80's? He was even more annoying than the Dell dude.
  • by cdn-programmer ( 468978 ) <> on Monday March 08, 2004 @07:41PM (#8504056)
    Yes, it was rather funny when I bought my set of Britannica.

    I made three mjor steps when I came into this city (1) I found a woman and married her (2) she found a house and we bought it and (3) I tracked down an encyclopeadia salesman and bought a set.

    Well - #3 was the hardest. I managed to find them but had to call long distance as I recall. Eventually this lead to a referal here in the city and a younge chap showed up at the door. He advised that he had to go through his speal. I advised I wasn't interested in his speal - I wanted to look at the covers and the color.

    A few minutes later his jaw drops in AMASMENT and he askes "Do you mean you are really going to buy them?" to which I answered: "Well, if you ever show me the damn covers - yes!"

    And he says something like: "The company says I always have to go through this speal... This is the EASIEST sale I've ever made!!!"

    They only cost about 1 1/2 months salary. I still look at that set with pride. And they are used alot as well. Of all the investments I've made, my encyclopeadias are one of the best.

  • by ReyTFox ( 676839 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @08:26PM (#8504466)
    In my writing class(which is just now ending), we wrote several encyclopedia-style entries for the KnowledgeWeb Project []. They had to be factually correct, of course, with research and citings and some form-filled information for technical purposes. The entries I worked on varied from pathetically easy(locomotive) to impossible(Henry Hindley, whom I managed to find about two sentences' worth on after considerable searching through the Britannica and Americana, Who's Who's, and then in historical listings of clockmakers. You can see what I came up with on Wikipedia.) Comparatively, I've also started up new articles in Wikipedia anonymously, some of them stubs and others full articles.

    Based on this experience, I've decided that it's FAR, FAR easier to work on a Wikipedia article than one that would go in a commerical encyclopedia. Not just because there's peer review without any institutionalization required(someone reviewing generally reviews the article itself and not the database info), but because the amount of research any one person has to do is minimal for most topics; if you know something, you put it in, else you leave it open for the next guy and mark the article a stub. Eventually someone comes along who knows the bits that are missing, and the article is completed with a minimum of tedium on everyone's part. The articles that nobody knows about, you can post bounties for, and eventually someone brave and passionate about the subject will take on the adventure of searching through dusty archives in the real world looking for the letters or documents that would give him material for an article. There's not really any commercial interest to spoil this picture, since it's all entirely voluntary.

    Vandalization is less of a problem than one might think; if the article is simply turned into whitespace, you roll it back from the history, which covers 100 edits IIRC. If there's bad information, someone had to work hard to come up with it and put it there; it can't be done on a massive scale like other forms of Internet abuse, and it takes at most an equal amount of effort to give the bad information a place as a "minority viewpoint," and much less to just roll the page back. If rival factions fight over an entry, then either it gets hammered out over time into something acceptable to both sides, or it gets locked.

    However, I admit that I still am hesitant to cite Wikipedia as a source, and turn to the library's Britannica for all my encylopedia citations and fact-checking, just because of that "you never know" tendency. It'll probably go away as the Wikipedia becomes better developed and respected. I know that the development of Internet citations took a similar path while I was in school. In middle school(the mid-to-late 90s), the Internet was still "new enough" that many teachers just banned citing from it outright. Later, by high school, they had developed lists of trusted sites to access. Now in college, I can feasably cite anything I want off the Net if I think it's trustable, but most of what I end up using are official documents in PDF format from some research or government group, because they all post them online these days. Wikipedia citations will probably follow in a year or three.

  • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @08:39PM (#8504535) Journal
    The problem with encylopedias I've seen, is that they don't play to the strengths they have.

    Mainly, what I'd like to see is encyclopedias that have a large variety of extensive multimedia. One picture for each topic doesn't exactly cut it... If I could look up "Ferrarri" and find 30 minutes of video-clips, along with plenty of audio recordings, and really detailed information on the cars, I'd be happy to buy the CDs/DVDs, because it's not easy to find that information elsewhere. Unfortunately, digital encyclopedias just tend to be a digitized version of the physical encyclopedias, with an audio clip thrown in here and there.

  • by snatchitup ( 466222 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @09:18PM (#8504814) Homepage Journal
    So, the net got rid of paying for info on paper.

    Could we ever see it git rid of paying for electronic information?

    Will Google or some search engines ever create an "Oraganized factual" area that does the equiv of Lexis Nexis.

    This will be very interesting over the next 20 years.

    Most software geeks don't need or use Lexis Nexis, however, if you've ever supported a large legal office, you know all about it, and how expensive it is.

  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Monday March 08, 2004 @09:59PM (#8505108) Homepage
    Digital encycopedia sales are down for one very obvious reason: people don't need another encyclopedia. Just as someone doesn't throw away their 1400$ encyclopedia set, they don't just throw away Encarta 2001 because it's a couple years old. It still works.

    There simply isn't that much new information created in a given year or group of years, and what does happen is generally quite easy to find online for the first couple years after its occurance in contemporary news form.

    Even small to medium sized libraries aren't likely to buy a new encyclopedia edition every year, 2 years, or whatever. My parents still have an enyclopedia set from sometime in the 1970's that is pertinent for a very vast amount of the information you might want to look up. Granted, some of the scientific information is a bit dated, as is the "history" that has occured in the last 25 years, but that's a relatively insignificant amount of time and knowledge.

    I have a copy of Encarta from 1995 that is still more than capable of providing more information than Id likely need for a given topic given cursory interest, when and if I'm unable to find the info online.

Evolution is a million line computer program falling into place by accident.