The set of bound encyclopedias could be supplemented with a set of the Great Books of the Western World or the Harvard Classics. It was also common to buy sets of complete works of some authors by subscription, such as the works of Dickens or Balzac.
The sets of books were expensive and encyclopedias were sold by sometimes desperate and otherwise unemployed door to door salesmen who worked on commission. A set of the Britannica could cost from $500 up, depending on your choice of binding. Because bound books of current facts are obsolete as soon as they leave the press, buyers could also subscribe to annual yearbooks. We have several yards of shelf space taken up by encyclopedias and yearbooks. That 1953 edition is now of mainly historical interest.
Those halcyon days are now over. Instead of paying the current price of about $1,500 for a set of the Britannica, you can buy the whole works, the latest edition on a single DVD for $25 plus shipping and handling. Load it into your computers hard drive and its there on demand, complete with a search engine. But even the latest Britannica on a DVD is a dead thing compared to the latest internet development in research materials, the Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org).
Talk about a Marshall McCluen global village! Thanks to the Internet, knowledgeable people from around the world, in fact from over one hundred countries, providing over 500 administrators have put this together. The Wikipedia has currently 1.6 million articles in 200 languages, of which one hundred are active. So you dont have to know English to access it. The list of languages included is impressive.
That size of an evolving encyclopedia which may be added to, edited, and increased from one day to the next could put the prestigious Britannica to shame; but theres a caveat. As Ive often said, an undergraduate pursuing a bachelors degree doesnt learn all there is to know about a subject but does learn where to look it up. In graduate school you discover that the sources you looked up as an undergraduate may have been biased, incorrect, or even lying.
SUSCEPTIBLE TO MISCHIEF
The Britannica is not written by a single god-like authority, but farms out the articles to experts in the field. Those experts, for all the care given in their selection, may be wrong or may distort or omit the content. As a living work in progress, the Wikipedia is even more susceptible to vandalism and mischief.
The Wikipedia is also uneven. As with anything that grows without a firm plan there are gaps. Look up Northern Express Weekly and youll find that it is the largest Michigan weekly newspaper distributed in 13 counties in up to 30,000 copies, but the entry doesnt include the newspapers address. The beauty of the Wikipedia is that the entry can be edited by a visitor to the site, adding something which may be in error.
The danger is that vandalism can occur. The Merriam Webster Dictionary includes words that do not exist, inventions inserted to protect the companys copyright, but the Wikipedia is susceptible to bogus articles. Whats to prevent some wag from inventing a mythical beast and writing a fake article? Or some malicious person to sneak in a subtle distortion or outright slander in a biography? You wouldnt have to do something obvious like calling a political figure a war criminal, but using loaded words can spin some readers.
You may remember Mark Twains retraction. Hed been called out, if I recall, because he said a woman was fat. He then apologized to the alleged Mrs. Xxx who claimed to be the etc. Its difficult to police such a huge work, for if printed the Wikipedia would be well over a million pages. Like any cooperative effort, the Wikipedia depends on the good will and good faith participation of all its contributors. A few gross errors or scandals can discredit the whole enterprise.
My grandson has found the Wikipedia a useful source, but just as a journalist must verify sources (Dan Rather, please note!), users of any encyclopedia must always be cautious about reliability. Even the Britannica can be wrong.