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Inspiring encyclopedias

There are more than a few people who think I’m mad—or nuts, as we Americans say—but I’ve always denied it. Until today, when I found myself rolling out Danish pastry at 5.30am as I waited for the kettle to boil for a second pot of tea.

I’d got up at 4.00 to work on a plan for 2009-2011 reference titles, an interesting shift in perspective when I’ve been so focused the past few weeks on working with our terrific editorial staff to speed on publications for the first half of 2008. Somehow it seemed a good idea finally to use that pastry, which I’d made and frozen a couple months ago, and I figured I could just roll and shape them betwixt writing sections of the plan. True, I could and did, but I also had a day packed with meetings ahead and needed to fit in a yoga session, too. And that’s not to mention the fact that it’s August.

A need to nurture, or to play Martha Stewart? Or maybe I just wanted something special to eat as I finished up the plan. In any case, the writing went well, inspired in part by my recent investigation of free online encyclopedias, and no one seems to object to having some extra goodies around the office.

A fascinating online project that my scientific friends seem to know about is the Encyclopedia of Earth, which I understand from Larry Sanger, mentioned in yesterday’s post, to be the first of many such expert-driven projects that will be developed by Digital Universe. The website is attractive and there are academic specialists involved and a considerable amount of content. But I still find that such efforts demonstrate the value of the work we do at Berkshire. Here, for example, is the kind of article title you find in projects without a publisher in control: “Alternatives for significant uses of lead in Massachusetts.” Nothing wrong with the topic, but is it really appropriate for a reference work? Actually, this can happen even when a publisher is in control, so there’s probably a bigger discussion here, about what an encyclopedia is or should be. At Berkshire, we do have a classical, rigorous approach even when we’re doing cutting-edge topics (“Grey Goo,” for example, in the in-progress Encyclopedia of the 21st Century). But let’s look at a real life example. Here are the first 11 articles in an Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction published by Information Group:

  • Abduction and Web Interface Design
    Adaptable and Adaptive Web-Based Educational Systems
    Agent-Based System for Discovering and Building Collaborative Communities
    Agent-Supported Interface for Online Tutoring
    Analyzing and Visualizing the Dynamics of Scientific Frontiers and Knowledge Diffusion
    Art as Methodology
    Attention Aware Systems
    Automated Deduction and Usability Reasoning
    Automatic Evaluation of Interfaces on the Internet
    Automatic Facial Expression Analysis
    Case Study on the Development of Broadband Technology in Canada

That list reads like a collection of journal article titles, doesn’t it? Berkshire’s tables of content are much simpler—perhaps not as impressive, but more navigable, and designed to provide consistent and complete coverage. Here are the first entries in the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction:

  • Adaptive Help Systems
    Adaptive Interfaces
    Affective Computing
    Application Use Strategies
    Artificial Intelligence

At the moment we’re in the midst of cutting down the article list for one forthcoming publication, the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Justice. This is agonizing to the editors and I feel like a brute insisting that they keep removing headwords to meet our final total.

For several other projects, including the Business of Sustainability volume for the Encyclopedia of Sustainability, we’re in the midst of developing the article lists. What a fascinating process it is, demanding knowledge, creativity, and organizational rigor. Consistency and balance is a constant challenge. There’s an advantage to having a small number of people compose a list, because there’s more internal, intuitive logic applied to the distribution of topics. But any one of us, no matter how knowledgeable, is going to miss swathes of topics that to other people are naturally and inevitably part of the subject. So we try to have both: input from a lot of people, with final decisions made by one or two.

At Berkshire, David Levinson has done much of this work over the years, and helped to establish a system we can now use to develop lists in new fields and disciplines. The really exciting piece for me now is seeing how our current projects interconnect. I’ve been inspired to investigate new fields by looking across the whole spectrum of our publications and article lists (facilitated by a new Intranet tool designed by Trevor Young just last week). I was just adding to that source of inspiration with this morning’s coffee and Danish, I guess, and it’s really quite a list we now have for the years ahead, to start mapping and discussing with our advisers.

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