Posts Tagged ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

Throwing out the encyclopaedias or, accessing information today

June 22, 2016

I used to collect reference books, so that I could easily access information, and have it at my fingertips whenever I needed it. Now they gather dust on my shelves and I’m gradually getting rid of them all. Yes, the internet has rendered most of them obsolete, and I found myself thinking about the enormous change that has taken place in the accessing of information in the last twenty years or so.

I grew up needing to use libraries to find things out – the public library, the library at school; they had the reference books, the encyclopaedias, the directories. Gradually, as I could afford them, and became clearer about what would be useful, I began to acquire my own copies of selected works. I’ve worn out a couple of copies of Chambers English Dictionary, one of the Shorter Oxford, and a couple of editions of the Times Atlas… I have reference books on language, literature, Bach, travel and exploration, to name a few. There is something different about using reference books: as well as searching for specific information, one can enjoy browsing, and one can be side-tracked down interesting back alleys whilst searching. The web doesn’t facilitate this.

Pretty nearly every reference book is supplanted by what’s available online, in a much more up-to-date form – apart from a good atlas: Google Earth is no substitute for a good printed map, though it can, of course, do many things that my trusty atlas can’t.

Now, on my desktop, my laptop, my tablet or my phone, I can find out what I’m looking for in seconds, and the information is (usually) current. Wikipedia is a marvel (who uses the Britannica now? how many people have even heard of what used to be the gold standard in print, hawked to unsuspecting parents by doorstep salesmen for years? Twenty-four, and then thirty-two volumes of high quality knowledge, that you can’t give away now. Not only can I go straight to what I want, but the printed information is enhanced by illustrations, diagrams and filmclips. Instead of trawling through pages of information or a huge index to track down a single nugget, if my search terms are carefully-enough worded, it’s there, instantly. And yet, as I noted earlier, it’s not the same as the physical search through a printed book, where we may serendipitously come across something far more interesting.

I would have said that books were probably better for more detailed information, but I think the web now wins here, too: there are some astonishingly detailed articles, some wonderful, lovingly developed and maintained websites (I’m particularly thinking of the superb Bach Cantatas website) that far surpass weighty printed volumes. And then there are the links, which we take for granted, expect to find, that can take us far beyond the scope of that initial website, in an instant. Knowledge isn’t a walled garden any more: it’s no longer only in this book, if you know the book exists and can get your hands on a copy…

I know I’ve expressed reservations about some aspects of electronic media in previous posts; there are things I do feel very wary of. I am beginning to think there are two internets out there, the trashier social media/ entertainment/ shopping one, and the wonderful world of knowledge which far fewer people are interested in, and which never ceases to amaze me. And there are two attitudes to knowledge, too: I come from a generation where we learned and remembered things, squirrelling facts away on our own personal hard drives and able to recall them when we needed to; today’s younger people, it seems to me, are quite happy not so much to know facts as to know where to find out things if and when they need to; that’s quite a change too, and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of that…

The Search for Knowledge

March 9, 2014

219SW147+JL._I’ve been reflecting this week on this basic human drive: the urge to discover, and to know. I was prompted by revisiting two texts I really like, Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories, and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In Roman times, Pliny attempted to codify what was known about the natural world – and it’s a lot – and in the seventh century, Isidore, a Spanish monk, attempted to write down everything that was known about the world, organised into (to him) logical sequence, thus producing what is arguably the world’s first encyclopaedia. Everything is listed, and its Latin name analysed for clues as to its nature and essence, sometimes correctly, occasionally very fancifully. And for his efforts, Isidore was named patron saint of the internet, which I find wonderfully appropriate. Arab scholars also collected and codified knowledge; the only one I’ve read so far is Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early fifteenth century.

9780140444131

This urge to know, and to collect all knowledge, culminated in the encyclopaedias of the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps culminating in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sadly, printed sets of this mammoth work cannot now even be freecycled with ease – who wants 32 hefty volumes on their shelves nowadays, with all knowledge at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger?

Apparently, we now can search for, and find out anything, instantly. No need to learn or retain facts, as they can easily be re-located at will. And yet, these are usually only snippets or gobbets of knowledge, without depth, detail and context. I use wikipedia as much as anyone: it’s an incredibly useful tool, most especially for the links at the end of a lot of articles. But if I want depth and detail, I still turn to old-fashioned paper. I wonder if it’s my age; certainly, reading page-like chunks of text online is quite hard on the eyes; ‘normal’ net-text is smitten into small gobbets, surrounded by white space and illustrated with pictures and hyperlinks, rather like today’s school textbooks, which used to have me wondering whether there was as much depth to learning and understanding nowadays… and is much more readable onscreen.

Long ago I realised that one of the reasons I love travel writing, especially from past ages, is that the travellers were genuinely exploring and discovering (for us) new places and peoples, new knowledge, and so often wondering and marvelling at the diversity of the world. This urge to discover is one of the best attributes of our species, it seems to me. I have been fascinated by the exploration of space from my very earliest years (at primary school, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men to reach the moon!); I’ve always felt that this is money well-spent, peanuts in comparison with what is wasted on armaments and warfare, for example. I don’t think I’ll ever live through a more significant moment than that night when I arose at 3am to watch live on TV the first men actually walk on the moon, and the thought that, in my lifetime, our species has built a spacecraft that was launched and has now travelled so far as to be almost outside our solar system, is truly marvellous.

So, what have I contributed to all this? I hope that, as a teacher, I managed to inspire students with a yearning for, and an understanding of the value of knowledge. I have read, and will continue to read and learn as long as the eyes allow, and I will discuss and argue about most things with whoever comes along… and hope to learn something new every day.

%d bloggers like this: