Encyclopedias are touch stones, introductory references, telescopes peaking into much larger worlds. Sometimes the lenses of our printed guides are blurred. Ink alone does not endow words with factual authority. Printing and binding only guarantee a higher delivery cost. The entries may be factual, but good luck verifying the sources. If you have access to the sources you probably would not bother looking it up in an encyclopedia; unless that encyclopedia is Wikipedia.
If you know a subject well, the best place to begin is Wikipedia. If the First Barbary War is one of your specialties, go to Wikipedia and see if the article is accurate. If it’s not, make corrections (The current article does not meet Wikipedia standards). As a contributor you can clear the way for other observers.
Here is an example. I’m familiar with the events surrounding the murder of Joseph Standing in 1879 and Wikipedia had a stub (A short article marked for expansion) about his life. In July 2007 I made a major revision of the article. I adhered to Wikipedia’s three content policies; maintain a neutral point of view (NPOV), provide verifiable sources, and do not use original research. Since my revision there have been around 30 minor edits, made by other users, and with only two exceptions every edit has been an improvement.
This kind of real time editing can not be done in the world of paper. I recently found two errors in a history book that has been on the market for over a decade. I submitted corrections to the publisher earlier this week and while they were pleased to receive accurate information, it will probably take a year or more before the book is updated.
As Erin McKean says, sometimes paper is the enemy of words. The book is not the best shape for an encyclopedia. At the same time, I’m not yet converted to belief in a paperless world. I simply love books. Well referenced, indexed books. But from my non-neutral point of view Wikipedia and its volunteer army of Wikipedians, of which I am one, are headed in the right direction. Now let’s Wiki.