Are old Britannica encyclopedias worth anything?

Internet instead of tomes: Wikipedia is replacing classic lexicons

Status: 11.01.2021 11:49 a.m.

Wikipedia was launched in Germany 20 years ago. The online reference work is one of the most frequently used Internet sites - and has overtaken encyclopedias such as Brockhaus or Meyers.

by Janek Wiechers

Thousands of authors create and edit the lexicon entries - and millions access this information. The freely available and free online encyclopedia has long since replaced the classic lexicons in book form. The heavy volumes on the bookshelf - Brockhaus, Meyer's Konversationslexikon or the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, for example - still have historical value today. Wikipedia has fundamentally changed the way lexicons are dealt with.

Wikipedia makes going to the shelf superfluous

"It's much easier, for example, when you're writing something, just open another window on your computer and get the data or information you need, than go to the shelf," says a retired high school teacher who works in lives in a north German city. Always up to date, easily available and much more detailed than the classic lexicon. These are some of the reasons this lady uses Wikipedia to look up information.

Wikipedians usually write under a pseudonym

Not only does she passionately read Wikipedia articles, she also creates and modifies them. Like most Wikipedians - that's what the honorary authors call themselves - she writes under a pseudonym. In the online encyclopedia she works as "Felistoria", among other things, with historical manuscripts and animals. Our way of getting information has changed a lot, she says. To find out more about concepts, people, things from nature. She thinks there is simply more available now. There used to be a conversation dictionary for weddings. And that stayed with you for a lifetime.

The classic Brockhaus no longer plays a role

Many classic encyclopedias no longer appear printed on paper.

The conversation lexicons have long since become obsolete. With the advancing digitization, they rapidly lost their importance. The last edition of Brockhaus appeared as early as 2005 - that weighty, multi-volume encyclopedia with a long tradition. The publishing house changed hands several times and eventually disappeared from the market. Today a Swedish company owns the naming rights and publishes a paid online encyclopedia.

Digitization: Internet is replacing paper

Is Wikipedia to blame for the decline of the traditional lexicon? That would be a very shortened view, says Stephanie Warnke-De Nobili, editor-in-chief of today's Internet Brockhaus from Munich. She sees it in a much larger context: that the Internet and digitization in general have primarily buried looking up information on printed paper. And, of course, in the case of Wikipedia as a very successful and very rapidly growing online archive, that should be seen very pointedly.

A view that Annekatrin Bock also shares. She is a communication scientist at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig. You have to see the disappearance of traditional lexicons in a larger context: "I don't think I would ascribe that to a channel or online medium." This is a process that is emerging in the course of digitization and media transformation in all industries - including the music and school book publishing industry. And you couldn't attribute that to Wikipedia as an online offer.

Lexicon publishing landscape is experiencing a process of upheaval

But what has become of the army of lexicon authors? The former employees are at most still on board as freelance authors, explains Brockhaus editor Warnke-De Nobili: Of course it was a process of upheaval. In a certain sense, the industry has become smaller. And there, too, the composition would have changed a bit. It is no longer so easy to win academic staff from universities for a general education encyclopedia.

Wikipedia lives from the wealth of experience of a community

In the case of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, it is often lay people and not experts in the field who create the entries. Wikipedia user "Felistoria" from Northern Germany also knows about it: "There are many who have made themselves known." For example, she knows someone who is actually a mathematician, but who is an excellent writer of literature. But these are things that nobody would notice. It could also be someone from the field.

Lukas Mezger is convinced that it doesn't have to be a shortcoming if not only proven experts are at work. The Hamburg lawyer - himself an author at Wikipedia from the very beginning - is the chairman of Wikimedia Germany. The association supports the online community. With Wikipedia, due to the large number of users, it is immediately noticeable if something is not right, says Mezger. And it will be corrected accordingly. An article in a classic encyclopedia is written by far fewer people and is perhaps much more prone to one-sided representations or errors. And a collaboratively created online lexicon such as Wikipedia has an advantage: "The swarm that tries to reproduce the most up-to-date and objective information. And also to state where the information comes from," Mezger continues.

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NDR culture | Classic in the day | 01/11/2021 | 06:40 am