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Who writes encyclopedias?

We’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 we’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 there—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.)

I’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 don’t manage to get certain very busy, well-known experts to write an encyclopedia article, they often recommend colleagues and provide guidance—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 (I’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. Here’s a typical posting on a grad student listserv ( 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 shouldn’t just anyone write encyclopedia articles? Isn’t it just a matter of checking some sources and writing up something new?

The reason many people think this is that they haven’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. I’m incredibly lucky to have got to know some of the world’s top scholars, and experts outside academia, during my years in publishing. It’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. That’s the kind of regurgitation one gets on the Web (haven’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. I’ve been thinking about that, and will share more of the explanation I am giving them—and perhaps some of the discussion that results, too.

3 thoughts on “Who writes encyclopedias?

  1. […] Christensen, CEO of Berkshire Publishing, has written an interesting blog post (”Who Writes Encyclopedias?”) about the nature of encyclopedia compilation. She notes that some publishers rely on […]

  2. A case for authoritatively edited articles in reference publications could be made from recent cover stories of two respected magazines. The Atlantic’s July-August issue arrived in my mailbox with a cover featuring an article by James Fallows, “China Makes, the World Takes.” Fallows presents an interesting and rather positive view of China’s model for outsourcing, especially among light, assembly-based industries. Shortly afterward, the July 23 issue of BusinessWeek showed up with a considerably less sanguine cover story by a quartet of reporters: “Can China Be Fixed?” Both are about China’s industrial culture, but without sufficient context you could find it hard to believe they were about the same country. It would take a skilled editor to meld the main points of each into one cohesive encyclopedia entry. Most intriguing concept in either: a point made in Fallows’ article that China so much isn’t cheap as it is fast, especially where local logistics are concerned.

  3. Webb, this is fascinating. I haven’t read either article, but I will now, and then I’ll have a post for my Guanxiblog! Thanks, and xie xie, Karen.

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