(This post first appeared at www.consultmu.co.uk in June 2013)
Bertelsmann’s announcement of the closure of Brockhaus encyclopedias (June 2013) is indeed the end of an era. The Brockhaus encyclopedia style was fundamentally different to that of Britannica. While of similar size, its focus was very different. As Wikipedia states, “the work was intended not for scientific use [by which I think is meant scholarly use], but to promote general intellectual improvement by giving the results of research and discovery in a simple and popular form without extended details.” It also existed in a single-volume edition (something I warm to, as the former publisher of the UK’s best-selling single-volume print and online encyclopedia, The Hutchinson Encyclopedia). Does the death of Brockhaus mean the end of the Enlightenment ideal of a simplified access to learning? Clearly not. Wikipedia provides an admirable introduction to many subjects, and is undoubtedly more up to date than any commercial encyclopedia it can be compared with. How then does Wikipedia differ from Brockhaus and other commercial products?
According to Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times, the difference is clarity: “clarity is the weak spot of crowd-sourced encyclopedias”. The sample page from Brockhaus shown above is certainly very clear. But Wikipedia has plenty of clear illustrations, both photos and diagrams.
According to Denis Fasse of Encyclopædia Universalis, the difference between free information (aka Wikipedia) and reliable information (that is, Universalis) is that “between a picnic and a three-star restaurant” (as quoted by John Lichfield in The Independent). My analysis is rather one of balance and priority. Wikipedia can be described perhaps as a very messy patchwork of interested parties with no common interests, no central vision, no real interest in clarity. It is certainly up to date, but at the same time, in this as in other aspects, it reflects the current concerns of its readers much more accurately than any commercial model has ever done. Unfortunately the opportunity for any reader to add any content on any subject has led to a disastrous lack of proportion. The process begun by Diderot has been developed to its logical conclusion – a focus on subjectivity that results in a levelling-out of all information as of equivalent value. The Wikipedia entry for the TV crime series The Wire is 10,437 words; the entry for William Shakespeare is 6,539 words. No commercial publisher ever presented such a perspective (some would say such a distorted perspective) of readers’ concerns in the modern world. Perhaps that was their mistake!
It’s not difficult to find examples of lack of balance in Wikipedia. Pretty much every major article has trivia associated with it; but often the trivia is dressed up as critically respectable. Diderot himself was not averse to including jokes in the Encyclopédie; but Wikipedia’s approach is relentless in placing the trivial alongside the significant. Without Wikipedia, how would we otherwise know that (from the Wikipedia entry for The Wire) “The DVD sets [of the TV series] have been favorably received, though some critics have faulted them for a lack of special features.”. This statement has four citations attached to it in Wikipedia, so it is allowed into the encyclopedia; clearly it must be accurate, valid, and worth knowing.
[Entries in Wikipedia are likely to change frequently. The references above were extracted on June 30 2013.]