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Weighing Wikipedia

  • 16 January 2012

Recently the library I manage received a 40 box donation of books from a religious house that had just closed in rural New South Wales. Four of the boxes carried a complete ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875–89), unmarked, in near perfect condition.

This set must have been carted into the intense hinterland at the time by the German nuns, then referred to more or less continually for over a century. It is called the Scholars Edition, because a vast range of university experts made contributions, raising the Britannica to a new level of intellectual input and expectation.

It is not the most popular edition among buffs. That is the special preserve of the 11th edition, produced on rice paper in leather bindings, with contributors like Baden-Powell on kite-flying, Arthur Eddington on astronomy, Edmund Gosse on literature and Donald Tovey on music. Many of these entries are still read for pleasure and information today, though for some this is a way of spending the whole afternoon in 1912, which is apparently meant to be a safer and nicer world than 2012.

Libraries though are intended for more than historical diversions. Our 1889 acquisition will be catalogued then stored quietly in a stack room: some of the theology was avantgarde for its time. 

Nothing has quite shaken the conventions of reference like the internet, and in particular its know-all eldest child, Wikipedia. Until ten years ago the great publishing houses with reference lines were expected to produce new, authoritative, concise volumes on subjects major and minor, every year. This expectation no longer holds, even if outstanding works of reference, often more niche than normative, keep reaching the shelves.

When confronted with the sesquipedalianest of all words, we are less likely to get out the dictionary than copy it into the search line of our computer. Now even figuring out how many esses there really are in a word leads us to the screen rather than the page and this reliance on Google to answer all questions has become an issue, even if most users aren't aware of it.

It is not just laziness, or an unthinking adherence to the false nostrum that if it isn't on the web it doesn't exist. Its permanent availability and