I have to admit: when I wrote last week’s article about the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s going out of print, I jumped over to Wikipedia for a little bit of fact-checking. I’ve gone on record lamenting the demise of the multi-volume printed reference set, even feel a bit of nostalgia for it, though I haven’t looked something up in the EB since probably 1998. Even then I was already using Encarta most of the time, which was cheaper, quicker, and more interactive than its printed counterpart. And I feel I’m pretty representative of the general population in my preference for Wikipedia and its freeness over a costly, leather-bound encyclopedia set.
I’ll still feel a bit of nostalgia for the old era of printed media, but the numbers are in: Wikipedia wins out over the old guard in cost, size, weight, frequency of updates, amount of content, and even revenue. Last year the Encyclpaedia Britannica netted $11 million in revenue, which Jimmy Wales’s personal appeal banner ads raked in over $60 million in donations. I’ll add one more field in which Wikipedia takes the cake, and I’m surprised this didn’t show up on the graphic: Language. You can read Wikipedia articles in 284 different languages, including simplified English and Esperanto. The Britannica? Like the former empire it originated in, it would prefer you speak English.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. hopes to stay competitive in the digital age through tablet apps, online subscriptions, and curriculum resources. I wish it all the best, but it will have a hard row to hoe in competing against Wikipedia’s chief advantage: it is absolutely free.