Tim Carmody, in his piece, Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Britannica. Windows Did.
Carmody argues that Britannica began to die long before Wikipedia was around, likely around the time of the advent of Microsoft and Encarta CD-Roms. He’s not too sad about it though, because he likens Britannica to a marker of prestige more than an actually valuable, usable information source.
In short, Britannica was the 18th/19th equivalent of a shelf full of SAT prep guides. Or later, a family computer.
“I suspect almost no one ever opened their Britannicas,” says Appelbaum. “Britannica’s own market research showed that the typical encyclopedia owner opened his or her volumes less than once a year,” say Greenstein and Devereux.
“It’s not that Encarta made knowledge cheaper,” adds Appelbaum, “it’s that technology supplanted its role as a purchasable ‘edge’ for over-anxious parents. They bought junior a new PC instead of a Britannica.”
In another piece on the subject (this one in Slate) Farhad Manjoo also believes Britannica is fairly useless as an information source and rather, Wikipedia is sort of our savior.
My advice is to make the wiser, cheaper choice, one that will prove more helpful to your kids in the long run: Pay nothing to Britannica and teach your young ones to use Google and Wikipedia. While there are many legitimate complaints to be leveled at Wikipedia (rarely, it gets things wrong; sometimes, its entries are vandalized), the free, crowdsourced encyclopedia is better than Britannica in every way. It’s cheaper, it’s bigger, it’s more accessible, it’s more inclusive of differing viewpoints and subjects beyond traditional academic scholarship, its entries tend to include more references, and it is more up to date.
Most importantly, learning to navigate Google and Wikipedia prepares you for the real world, while learning to use Britannica teaches you nothing beyond whatever subject you’re investigating at the moment.
In that regard, Manjoo seems to have a point. Learning to fact-check is a key media literacy skill useful not only of journalists and writers but news consumers as well.
Don’t buy what Britannica’s selling. Its reliance on expert authority may yield mostly accurate information, but it teaches kids to believe everything they read. If you pay for this service, you’re building a cocoon of truth around students who’ll one day enter a world where everyone claims to be an expert—and where a lot of those people are lying. If you want to learn to suss out the liars, there’s no better training than Wikipedia.