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Cover of All the Knowledge in the World by Simon GarfieldAll the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia by Simon Garfield

Published in February 2023

The only time that I ever worked outside higher education was when I worked for Encyclopædia Britannica. If you are interested, that story is detailed in a blog post I wrote in 2010.

My professional connection to Britannica is why I couldn’t wait to read Simon Garfield’s new book, All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia.

I recommend All the Knowledge in the World to even those who never worked for an encyclopedia company. Anyone fascinated by the origins, evolution and the ultimate mortality of print encyclopedias will love this book. Wikipedia enthusiasts, from casual consumers to dedicated contributors, will also gain much from reading the book.

While I am confident that my experience working for Britannica makes me biased, I have long believed that those of us in higher education can learn much from the story of encyclopedias.

When I went to work for Britannica, the brand currency of the company was incredibly strong. The first print edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published in 1768. Near the end of the 20th century, when I joined the company, Britannica felt solid, consequential and permanent as our oldest and most established of universities.

Today, well—you know the story. The last print edition of Encyclopædia Britannica came out in 2010. Purchasing complete used print encyclopedia sets is possible for very little money.

One of the questions that Garfield asks in All the Knowledge in the World is how the print encyclopedia became extinct so rapidly. How could a product with so much cultural heft and brand legitimacy become obsolete so quickly?

Certainly, digitization was one element in the death of the print encyclopedia. Microsoft’s CD-ROM Encarta, built on the old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia after Britannica refused to license its content, was creating competitive pressure for Britannica. But it was not until Wikipedia was launched in 2001 that the print encyclopedia was doomed to extinction.

All the Knowledge in the World is excellent at telling the long historical story of all encyclopedias, including those that predated Britannica. The book does a great job of detailing the 20th-century history of Britannica and the full story of Wikipedia’s creation, challenges and impact.

What is mostly absent from Garfield’s narrative is the inside story of how Britannica attempted to pivot to the digital age. Someone should write a book about how the company split itself into two divisions, one for Encyclopædia Britannica and one for At the height of the first dot-com bubble, Britannica opened up all its content for free online in 1999. The site promptly crashed from demand that Britannica’s servers couldn’t handle.

In 2020, released maybe the worst Super Bowl ad of all time. (You can watch it here.)

What ultimately killed Britannica was not the transition from analog to digital. Or the internet. A free, ad-supported might have done really well. The reason why the cultural and brand value, not to mention monetary value, of Britannica today is a shadow of its former self is because of Wikipedia.

It turned out that a user-written and edited online encyclopedia is superior to a professionally written and edited online encyclopedia.

At the time of Wikipedia’s launch, nobody working at Britannica believed that that site would ever be a threat. How could it? Britannica had been investing in quality for well over 200 years.

Back in 2012, when The New York Times declared “the Year of the MOOC,” some within higher ed wondered if universities were having their own Wikipedia moment.

Having had a front-row seat to both the decline of the print encyclopedia and the birth of the massive open online course, I had my doubts.

But just because MOOCs failed to do to residential postsecondary education what Wikipedia did to the print encyclopedia does not mean that our campus-based universities are immune from existential threats.

So far, programs like UT Austin’s new $10,000 online master of science in artificial intelligence (MSAI) seem to be strengthening the residential-first institutions in which they are emerging.

What high-quality, low-cost scaled online degree programs will mean for the broader residential and online university ecosystem remains an open question.

If the history of the print encyclopedia tells us in higher education anything, it is that we should resist the urge to assume that we can fully predict our future.

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