The (Questionable) Value of Being the Authority

So I know this is going to come as a huge shock to everyone, but Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print.


They’re going to stick with their online encyclopedia and a set of educational curricula (which actually accounts for 85% of their revenue anyway…who knew?). I think most would agree this is a good call. In the New York Times article about the move, there was some discussion, as you might expect, about the Britannica/Wikipedia conflict and the role of the Internet in general on this issue, and Gary Marchionini, dean of Library Sciences at UNC, made an interesting point:

“There’s more comprehensive material available on the Web,” Mr. Marchionini said. “The thing that you get from an encyclopedia is one of the best scholars in the world writing a description of that phenomenon or that object, but you’re still getting just one point of view. Anything worth discussing in life is worth getting more than one point of view.

There seems to be a broad sentiment among associations that one of their main competitive advantages is the fact that they are the experts. Their members and staff have vetted the wild and crazy content that is on the internet and give you the straight, authoritative, expert truth. And there’s definitely value there. But that last sentence from Mr. Marchionini sticks with me. It’s still just one point of view. I get that it’s an expert point of view, and I like that. But it’s not enough.

The truth, it turns out, is not as singular as we thought it was. For the things “worth discussing in life,” anyway, that singular truth isn’t all of what we need. I think there is still room for associations to be the experts and provide that expert truth. But I think it also requires a shift in how they expect people to use that truth and what it means. Maybe less of a defensive posture that advocates for the supremacy of your truth, and more of a facilitative approach to supporting those discussions that are worth discussing.

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  1. 14.03.2012 at 10:52 am

    Thank you, Jamie. This is something meaty to chew on this morning. Sometimes we fight far too hard for our own truths when we think we’re an authority on a subject. Yet this over-reliance on authority can hinder our growth…and our ideas can fossilize because we’re not welcoming in new perspectives. It’s not just associations which are guilty of this. Unfortunately, it’s a problem for all of us.

    Thanks again for the reminder to keep my ideas fresh, nimble, and inclusive.

  2. 14.03.2012 at 2:14 pm

    The very concept of “expertise” / “expert” is questionable in a world that changes so fast and becomes increasingly complex. Let alone “authority”.
    Great blog entry.