Baby boomers grew up with Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia is poor substitute

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By David Henderson, co-founder and publisher of BoomerCafé.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, the oldest English-language encyclopedia still in print, is going out of print and moving solely into the digital age. I suppose many of us baby boomers might view it as another end of an era.

In continuous print since it was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768, Encyclopedia Britannica announced recently it will end publication of its printed editions and continue only with digital versions available online for a nominal charge.

The Encyclopedia Britannica lasted so long because it was credible and trusted. It was vetted by scholars and academics.

From the benefit of our grown-up hindsight, maybe the Encyclopedia was not perfect or complete. But is has always been well-written. The expertly authenticated articles sparked curiosity and knowledge among readers, including many young boomers. This was how many of us and then our children learned about the world. The stories were written and edited by experts. It was a costly business model.

Today, the whole notion of seasoned, skilled and trained editors is vanishing. It’s too expensive. Vanishing in mainstream print and broadcast media, and vanishing at online news and information resources.

At the other end of the credibility scale from Encyclopedia Britannica is Wikipedia.org, which apparently has never had editors but rather administrators with enough latitude on their own for personal bias, anger, ignorance and lack of knowledge to influence decisions over what appears and what does not.

Worse yet, the administrators for Wikipedia.org have no journalistic or editorial training! But, they are the decision-makers for information that goes online that we – you and I – are supposed to assume is accurate. Are we being conned?

We pay a price when things and facts are not checked-out. Information becomes less credible, less trusted and less of value. We are not as informed as we might have been.

Mainstream news media in America’s free society – unlike the old Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – has provided us the ability to learn more or less who reports, edits and publishes news and information. That’s called transparency, openness, accountability. Not so in the dark and virtually unaccountable environment of Wikipedia.org.

A friend who grew up behind the Iron Curtain pointed this out to me, suggesting that Wikipedia’s style reminded him of the old Soviet style of journalism.

Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales, a former options and futures trader. The concept is clever but increasingly there are questions about the ethical standards, veracity, credibility and prejudices of this somewhat shadowy information resource. Who is the cast of characters behind the secrecy of Wikipedia? Who is pulling the levers over what appears and what does not. What is deemed “notable” and what is not?

The profile of a widely known women’s rights advocate was rejected by a Wikipedia administrator who alleged that a link used as a citation to a press release on the website of an International Religious organization was “copyright infringement.” Wikipedia.org is full of such links to provide citations and evidence. Upon examination, the excuse by the administrator not to post the profile was ill-informed and inaccurate. I learned that Wikipedia does not admit to its own mistakes.

Nothing on the website or the press release used for the citation mentioned copyright, and I wondered whether his own bias was being revealed. So I dug into learning the true identity of the administrator. Most are computer geeks, not the literary sort.

This Wikipedia administrator lives in England. He claims to be a computer guy who still works with MsDos, an operating system from the 1980s. He has no editorial or academic experience. There is nothing in his online bio that suggests that he ever attended higher education. He is a typical Wikipedia administrator who rejects some information yet approves profiles of criminals without ever checking factual accuracy. He apparently approves or rejects to suit his personal fancy.

Click here to read the Wikipedia administrator’s credentials on his own website.

I learned that the administrators had rejected the profile of a well-known U.S. TV network correspondent and author of several books. The reason given was, “not notable.” Wikipedia’s criteria for determining what is “notable” is not revealed, and therefore open to personal bias.

Citing Wikipedia’s “the human factor” of such unpaid administrators is why an increasing number of journalists, online content managers and others are questioning the current and long-term credibility and value of Wikipedia.

Encyclopedia Britannia has had a highly respected editorial board over the years to assure excellence. Wikipedia.org has none. Encyclopedia Britannia has had well-known editorial guidelines. Wikipedia.org has none.

If Wikipedia is hobbled by a lack of enlightened ethical and journalistic criteria for a new age of information, skilled editors and knowledgeable experts, what value is it as an online tool to provide substantive value? Who really can trust the accuracy of Wikipedia?

Is that the information we baby boomers grew up in and remember? No, not in my opinion.

Do we, as parents, want our children relying on something like Wikipedia for their school assignments? Remember, Encyclopedia Britannica will still be online … and it can be trusted.

3 Comments

  1. We had World Book encyclopedia in our family when I was growing up, but your point is well taken. When people tell me they did “research” online, I often take it with a grain of salt. Unless it is a paid-for site (such as Westlaw or LexisNexis) with reliable credentials, no lawyer will use online sites for research, no doctor will use online sites for research, and, apparently, no true journalist will either.

  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica had the chance to be a real competitor to Wikipedia. In 2000 Britannica.com was launched which provided free access to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s database. High traffic volumes and poor internal management resulted in Britannica withdrawing the free access and returning to a subscription business model. The Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica clearly outlines the financial problems that the company has been having in recent years. Time will tell if Encyclopaedia Britannica will be around much longer.

    Over the next few years we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in an open source, Wikipedia-dominated environment.

  3. I would prefer Encyclopedia Britannica if it is online over wikipedia anytime. And if I had the printed editions, I would prefer it for a more thorough research, albeit the websites can perform support roles only.

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