Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Encyclopaedia Britannica Turns to Wikipedia Model

The venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica plans to partially capitulate to the internet trend of user-generated content by accepting articles and updates from a community of scholars and experts. This article in Wired explains how EB plans to continue to closely monitor and edit all content but will follow a model similar to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia which is free and to which most students, young people and search engines turn for information.

This is big news in the education and library world because this decisioin by EB shows just how much the free internet has changed the way people search for information and also how people decide where the most reliable information can be found. Generally people will seek out the easiest source for information first, rather than the highest quality source. For example, how many times have you just asked a friend for medical information rather than asking your doctor or instead of looking it up in medical reference books or websites? Maybe you double-check on your friend's information later, but initially, people often turn to the easiest way to seek answers.
This "information seeking behavior," as it might be called in scholarly articles, is frustrating to educators, librarians and to experts in various fields who feel that people are not getting the best information for making important decisions or for their education when they just "google" for the answers.

The Berkeley Heights Public Library has the hardbound EB set on the Reference shelves and subscribes to the online version so patrons can access the content the old-fashioned way or the new-fangled online way from home 24/7. To use EB online, click on Remote Databases from the library homepage, follow the prompts to verify that you are a BHPL card holder and choose the database from the list.

Currently many teachers will accept an online database as a legitimate resource for student bibliographies, but most eschew Wikipedia. To get around that restriction I've observed that students use whatever free internet sources they find by googling and then pad their papers with quotes from sources the teachers will accept and put only those sources in the footnotes or works cited page. The fact is that free sources are easier to use than databases which are still somewhat hidden and require passwords to access. That problem can be solved by educating students and library patrons, but it is an issue that keeps turning up each time a patron says, " I didn't know the library had these databases and that I can get into them from home."


Anonymous said...

The comments about Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are interesting.

Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica's staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.

Anne said...

Thanks for the comment. It remains to be seen what will happen to the for-pay databases that libraries subscribe to. It is premature to declare them dead though.