Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School

The latest issue of the New Yorker has a taken a little snapshot of Wikipedia (link will expire eventually) and wonders whether Wikipedia can sustain its battle against the experts. While Wikipedia is compared to Britannica several times in the article, no attention is given to the fact that Wikipedia is free and Britannica costs $11.95 a month ("Save $1,251.60 off the print Encyclopedia Britannica!"). Of course, many people have free online access to Britannica through their local library but they just don't know it.

From my understanding, public libraries are reluctant to advertise their online wares like Britannica for a couple reasons. First, they have limited marketing budgets. And secondly, even if the library could afford a city-wide campaign promoting their online databases, they choose not to because the access to such products are done on a per user basis. This means that while you are able to make three users happy at a given time, you can potentially create a lot of unhappy experiences for the rest of the people who are unable to access the same advertised database.

I work at a university library and have found that the vendors of databases are often able to temporarily waive access restrictions when a librarian wants to teach a class and demonstrate their product. It has been a while since I've worked in a public library so I don't know whether these same vendors would be willing to similarly waive access restrictions for the length of time of a marketing campaign. I would hope so because we can hardly blame the public for using Wikipedia when they don't even know that they have other choices.

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