Weâ€™re in the midst of an encyclopedia blitz, with our July Berkshire Contributors Quarterly about to go out to nearly 5,000 past Berkshire authors who we hope will help with our new big projects on Sustainability, China, and the 21st Century. This is our preferred way to assign articles: to work with authors again and again, and to extend the networks weâ€™ve developed by tapping into their connections. We find this makes the publishing process more satisfying for everyone concerned, and believe that it also produces a better publication.
he really exciting thing about our approach to developing encyclopedias through global knowledge networks is that they provide a perfect environment for some experimentation with social networking technologies. The human networks are already thereâ€”and of course enabled already by email, listservs, and association websites. What we do is connect the networks, and sometimes do a little friendly facilitation between scholars in different fields. (Or, for that matter, between scholars in the same field who may not be speaking on one another.)
Iâ€™m fairly sure that Berkshire manages to draw as senior a group of contributors as any publisher, and much more senior than most. Even when we donâ€™t manage to get certain very busy, well-known experts to write an encyclopedia article, they often recommend colleagues and provide guidanceâ€”thus becoming part of the project in ways that are truly valuable and help create a higher quality publication.
But many encyclopedias published even by well-known academic companies (Iâ€™d better not mention names, but any reference librarian will be able to make a mental list of the top handful) are largely written by graduate students or freelance writers without special knowledge. Hereâ€™s a typical posting on a grad student listserv (https://email.rutgers.edu/pipermail/cas_gradlist/2007-March/000155.html) about a reference publication:
I told the folks at ABC-CLIO that I would forward this message. They seem to be desperate for people to write entries related to Africa for their World History Encyclopedia. If you write enough, there is some compensation…but mostly this is a CV builder. / If you’re interested and want to know what’s available, please contact . . . .
This brings us to the Wikipedia argument: why shouldnâ€™t just anyone write encyclopedia articles? Isnâ€™t it just a matter of checking some sources and writing up something new?
The reason many people think this is that they havenâ€™t had an opportunity to talk to people who have devoted their lives to research and investigation and analysis, who have read vast amounts of published and unpublished material, and who spend a good deal of time thinking and talking about their subject. Iâ€™m incredibly lucky to have got to know some of the worldâ€™s top scholars, and experts outside academia, during my years in publishing. Itâ€™s become my goal, as an information publisher, to find ways to take their knowledge to new audiences, and to give students more profound sources than a freelance writer (I’m a freelance writer myself, sometimes, so I don’t mean this disparagingly) who simply amalgamates information from other encyclopedias to create an article. Thatâ€™s the kind of regurgitation one gets on the Web (havenâ€™t you done searches and kept bumping into the same couple of sentences on site after site after site?), and not what people turn to a trusted reference source for.
With our new project on the 21st century, we have had a few enquiries from prospective authors wanting to know how our encyclopedia will be better than Wikipedia. Iâ€™ve been thinking about that, and will share more of the explanation I am giving themâ€”and perhaps some of the discussion that results, too.