Let me settle this argument, I’ll just look it up in the encyclopedia‘ — said no one ever in the past 10 years.

Image credits: Jarmoluk / Pixabay.

It’s easy to forget just how privileged we are in this modern age. We whine about crowded cities and food and whatnot, but we have the entire human knowledge, virtually everything our species has ever written and developed, at the tip of our fingertips. Who invented the flushing toilet? Why do I look ugly in photos? What kinds of volcanoes are there? You can find out the answer to almost anything by doing a simple search online, and a lot of it comes from the world’s biggest encyclopedia: Wikipedia. Wikipedia has almost put encyclopedias out of a business and it’s done so in little more than a decade.

The history of encyclopedias

Ironically, the first place I looked for the history of encyclopedias was Wikipedia. Encyclopedias have existed for around 2,000 years; the oldest still in existence, Naturalis Historia, was started in 77 by Pliny the Elder. Encyclopedias were also relevant in the middle ages with Ibn Sina’s medical encyclopedia, for instance, being a reference for centuries. Works of universal histories also became popular during the medieval times. However, because they were handwritten and hand copied, they were really expensive and generally only available to the rich or those who really need it in their practice. This trend carried on until the 19th century when Encyclopædia Britannica and other similar works developed encyclopedias into the form we see know them.

The late 19th century and the 20th century was the golden age for encyclopedias. They became cheaper and cheaper and people wanted them more and more. They were so popular for a very simple reason: they’re an effective and compact way of conveying information. I know it’s hard to imagine now, but for the longest time in human history, general information was mostly unavailable to the regular people. Encyclopedias were a reliable way of learning stuff and having that knowledge available to you whenever you wanted. For the space of a library, you could host much of human knowledge and that’s just awesome.

The rise and fall

Image credits: Arcaion / Pixabay

Today, encyclopedias are almost forgotten for all but a small number of nostalgics. Bookshops are rarely selling them anymore, old bookshops aren’t valuing them anymore, and even charities have a hard time giving them away.

“Modern, 20th-century encyclopaedias really aren’t worth anything at all now,” rare book dealer Derek McDonnell told ABC Radio Perth. Charities are even turning them away, he added.

The reason for this is again, straightforward: something simpler came along. Why host a sum of information in something the size of a library, when you can host it in your cell phone? It’s easier to store it, it’s easier to access it (you just search something), and it’s free. You just needed a way to organize and structure it — and then came Wikipedia.

The new kid on the block

In 2001, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia, a collaboratively edited, multilingual, open-source, free Internet encyclopedia. It was perfect. I remember the first time I learned about Wikipedia, my father told me about it — it sounded like science fiction. A way to make everything and anything available to everyone, for free, on the internet. Much of it is also available in a number of languages and seriously, the fact that we take it for granted is staggering. We should be thankful every single day that something like Wikipedia exists and makes our lives so much easier. But Wikipedia isn’t perfect, and it has many differences to classic encyclopedias.

For starters, anyone can write on Wikipedia – you, me, anyone. There is a staff who regularly checks and verifies the articles, but with the sheer number of articles, Wikipedia greatly relies on volunteers both for writing and for editing. Meanwhile, classic encyclopedias were (at least in theory) curated and kept to a high standard. Furthermore, critics argue Wikipedia exhibits systemic bias and there are worries about information manipulation by big companies. Many academics, historians, teachers, and journalists reject Wikipedia as a reliable source of information claiming that it mixes truths, half-truths, and downright falsehoods.

A brave new world

Image credits: Patrick Tomasso / Unsplash

So where does this leave us? Well, the balance of information has shifted. In these modern times, the problem isn’t the availability of information — on the contrary, there’s too much information lying around and we’re having a hard time discerning truth from falsehood. We’ve seen this a lot recently in the debate around fake news. We see it in the form of websites promoting homeopathy and other pseudoscientific ideas. How do we know what’s true? I don’t have a simple answer for that.

What I do know is that we should keep a critical eye open. Doubt things, don’t just take them for granted. It doesn’t matter if you read something here on ZME Science, on BBC, or some pseudoscience hub like Natural News, doubt everything. Look for the original source of the information, find a second opinion and most of all, also think for yourself. There’s no substitute for reason, and there’s no perfect encyclopedia.

So are encyclopedias truly obsolete? I’d say no, though most would likely say yes. They’re definitely impractical compared to the alternatives and they’re definitely not as easy to use, but I feel the value they bring has shifted somehow. Like book libraries, they need to adapt and change their approach. The golden age of encyclopedias has come and gone, and it likely won’t ever return. But that doesn’t mean they still can’t play a useful role. To be honest, I only own a few small encyclopedias. But I cherish them and find them useful, as they have information I can’t easily find online. Perhaps that’s the direction encyclopedias need to take — focusing on the rarer, more specialized sciences.

Information can be surprisingly fickle and it’s shocking to think just how much things have changed in only a few decades. Encyclopedias moved from the pinnacle of education to an intellectual pleasure of the masses and to an obsolete item. Who knows what will happen in the future?

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