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Published: Friday, 3/16/2012


Hail Britannica

Two months after Eastman Kodak Co. declared bankruptcy, another household name is succumbing to the relentless march of technology.

Encyclopaedia Britannica announced this week that it will discontinue its best-known product, the 32-volume collection of reference material on everything from aardvarks to zygotes. The company is shifting its focus to the Internet, where it offers a virtual version of its books and a slate of fee-based educational services.

The company's ability to sell pricey bound volumes for 244 years is a testament not just to the power of its brand, but also to the demand for a convenient, reliable source of information. The market for the latter isn't going away, and at least four other publishers will keep printing multivolume encyclopedias after the last set of Encyclopaedia Britannica is delivered.

Yet it seems only a matter of time before the market evaporates for all of these costly editions. For families with a computer that's always connected to the Internet, free or low-cost research materials online provide an alternative that's at least as convenient and far more up to date. And smart phones provide access to virtual reference tools anywhere at any time, making a set of bound volumes on a bookshelf appear archaic.

Britannica's reputation for accuracy will probably ensure that the online version of its reference materials will continue to be cribbed by students around the globe. But the Internet is steadily undermining the brand's franchise.

The Web is an echo chamber that enables people to read and hear only the information that fits their point of view. The search tools that make it simple to find information online aren't built to elevate "definitive" sources such as Britannica, or even to separate fact from fiction. Instead, they tend to rank sources based on their popularity. The more something is repeated or cited online, the more it is promoted on Google. The definitive word on a subject may be simply the most widely held view, not the actual facts.

Meanwhile, sites such as Wikipedia enable the public to bring its collective knowledge to the task of writing reference material, independent of the experts employed by Britannica. That "wisdom of the crowd" approach has proved to be surprisingly accurate and effective.

More important, the Internet puts a trove of original documents and other primary sources of information at people's fingertips. Instead of relying on middlemen to do research for us, we now can go directly to the sources that Britannica writers and Wikipedia contributors used.

In a sense, the entire point of education is to develop the ability to think critically -- to sift through the data and draw the right conclusions. That's a lesson that kids don't learn by rewriting Britannica entries into term papers.

-- Los Angeles Times

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