The Portal Problem

Rick Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen has recently published two excellent articles on what he calls “The Portal Problem:” what will happen to traditional portals of learning now that we have the Internet?

The Plight of the Britannica examines the demise of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s print edition. As Anderson is quick to point out, this fact itself is hardly shocking.

If you want to help people find discrete pieces of information, burying them in a large document that can only be searched by reading the whole thing (or by recourse to a crude index) is a terrible way to go about it. And if you want to distribute information to a large number of people, attaching it to a heavy physical object (let alone 32 such objects) is no way to do it. The days of the printed encyclopedia are over, long over, and thank heaven for that.

However, all information portals have a more fundamental problem: simple web searches obtain results that are both more comprehensive and more authoritative. What remains is Wikipedia which is free, big enough, and good enough.

Even during the Gutenberg Era, the Britannica’s claim to cover “the breadth of human knowledge” was overblown; in the era of networked digital information, that claim borders on the hilarious. To begin one’s research with an encyclopedia is to start with a narrow and constricted strategy, not a broad one.

Most of our information queries aren’t terribly authority-sensitive — we often have little need of the assurance that the Britannica is selling. And if we do need really authoritative information, we’re not likely to start our research in an encyclopedia. Unless it’s Wikipedia. Everyone criticizes Wikipedia because it’s crowdsourced, and its authority is therefore suspect. But it offers something Britannica doesn’t: a reasonable expectation of comprehensiveness, along with a reasonable expectation of correctness.

The Plight of the Library Collection extends this reasoning to the traditional research library.

The library collection is simply a bigger version of the encyclopedia: a seemingly exhaustive but actually (in the great majority of cases) very limited information portal that invites increasingly-skeptical customers to “start your research here.”

The duopoly of Wikipedia and Google crushes the old ways of searching for topics and documents. For professional research, encyclopaedias are certainly dead and libraries will likely survive only as specialized collections of historical books.

Those who want quick information on a particular topic and might once have turned to a traditional encyclopedia now have Wikipedia — which is free, very easy to use, much more comprehensive in its coverage than any traditional encyclopedia, and reasonably authoritative. And those who want to figure out whether there is such a thing as a document on Topic X now have Google — which is free, very easy to use, and searches an astronomically huge (though not absolutely comprehensive) array of documents, many of which can be directly accessed in their entirety right from the search result, and others of which are discoverable as citations. Taken together, Google and Wikipedia arguably do an awful lot of what the library once did, and they do it more effectively, more conveniently, and for a much, much larger population than any individual library can serve. And they never close.

There is one postscript. As commenter Mark Danderson points out, Encyclopaedia Britannica survives as a company, deriving 85% of its revenue from educational software. Focusing on education, portals can still offer a first glimpse of the “breadth of human knowledge.” What I fear is that once decoupled from research, they will put entertainment or indoctrination before accuracy, as in so much of popular science reporting.

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