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Classic works of reference - from Diderot to Encarta - offered a series of advantages to their users:
1. Authority - Works of reference are authored by experts in their fields and peer-reviewed. This ensures both objectivity and accuracy.
2. Accessibility - Huge amounts of material were assembled under one "roof". This abolished need to scour numerous sources of variable quality to obtain data one needed.
3. Organization - This pile of knowledge was organized in a convenient and recognizable manner (alphabetically or by subject)
Moreover, authoring an encyclopaedia was such a daunting and expensive task that only states, academic institutions, or well-funded businesses were able to produce them. At any given period there was a dearth of reliable encyclopaedias, which exercised a monopoly on dissemination of knowledge. Competitors were few and far between. The price of these tomes was, therefore, always exorbitant but people paid it to secure education for their children and a fount of knowledge at home. Hence long gone phenomenon of "door to door encyclopaedia salesmen" and instalment plans.
Yet, all these advantages were eroded to fine dust by Internet. The web offers a plethora of highly authoritative information authored and released by leading names in every field of human knowledge and endeavour. The Internet, is, in effect, an encyclopaedia - far more detailed, far more authoritative, and far more comprehensive that any encyclopaedia can ever hope to be. The web is also fully accessible and fully searchable. What it lacks in organization it compensates in breadth and depth and recently emergent subject portals (directories such as Yahoo! or The Open Directory) have become indices of Internet. The aforementioned anti-competition barriers to entry are gone: web publishing is cheap and immediate. Technologies such as web communities, chat, and e-mail enable massive collaborative efforts. And, most important, bulk of Internet is free. Users pay only communication costs.
The long-heralded transition from free content to fee-based information may revive fortunes of online reference vendors. But as long as Internet - with its 2,000,000,000 (!) visible pages (and 5 times as many pages in its databases) - is free, encyclopaedias have little by way of a competitive advantage.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and searcheurope.com.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com