In Defense of Obsolete Knowledge

On March 13, 2012, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jorge Cauz, announced that the organization, which published the first edition of the pre-eminent English-language encyclopaedia in 1768, has decided to cease production of printed editions as it shifts all major editorial energy to the maintenance of its online edition.

My first thought, I confess, was a superficial one: now how will I press flowers, flatten crumpled papers, prop doors open?

But beyond the loss of a very (physically) useful set of volumes, this development in the publishing world marks another loss, and compels me to rise up in defense of “obsolete” knowledge. The moment an encyclopaedia is printed, Cauz argued in his statement to the press, its contents become obsolete. Unlike an online encyclopaedia such as Wikipedia, which remains current as hoards of contributors around the world revise its pages with astonishing speed, a printed encyclopaedia is, by virtue of its medium, simply unable to keep up.

Here’s the problem with keeping up: when a correction or a change is made online, the error or out-of-date information is lost. Written over. Relegated to the memory of a bank of computers somewhere, but invisible to the reader, for whom the present information appears to be the only information. An online encyclopaedia, in other words, is not a palimpsest: as new information is recorded, no traces remain of what came before.

This is not, however, a diatribe against online encyclopaedias, but rather a defense of obsolete knowledge. It takes courage to put anything in print, and in particular, a set of volumes that claims to contain all knowledge on a given subject at the time of publication. Courage, because contributors know there will be omissions, errors, inaccuracies. Tomorrow, perhaps, the Higgs boson particle will be discovered and a new sonnet will be attributed to Shakespeare and Tibet will become independent. A printed encyclopaedia, as much as it fixes what is known at a particular moment in time, also fixes what is unknown. And by fixing this ignorance in print, to be confronted and dismissed, the printed encyclopaedia reveals the process of how knowledge accumulates and changes.

On the final page of his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes muses on the nature of knowledge, memory, and history: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” What I fear will be lost in the move from printed to online encyclopaedias is the visible accumulation of knowledge, and the awareness that beneath any statement that appears stable, there lies a history of beautiful and baffling complexity.

But perhaps these are just the rationalizations of self-confessed bibliophile and Luddite…

One response to “In Defense of Obsolete Knowledge”

  1. Maybe they’ll do a better job than Wikipedia at versioning, preserving each entry’s history. I think that’s important, and more honest, in a way.

    I remember the out-of-date encyclopedia set in my house to be a hilarious time-machine, filled with places that no longer existed.