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Encyclopedias in the digital age: another way to look at the Britannica drama

An article in the New York Times today, “After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses,” has got everyone excited because they think this is news. But Britannica has been giving up print for as long as I’ve been in the reference business, over 15 years. There was a time in the ’90s when the buzz was that there would not be another print EB, but on and on it went, with new owners and new strategies. I have heard more stories about EB than I’ll ever have time to recount – one of Berkshire’s nearest and dearest colleagues was for years on its board – but will certainly try to get some of them into print (or at least into prose). The story of EB in China is one I want to investigate, too.

I’m getting ready for the Asian Studies conference in Toronto and there’s a neighborhood gathering at the Castle Street Cafe, so I’ll just paste here an essay I wrote for Library Journal a couple years ago, explaining the value of encyclopedias. Please keep in mind that EB is an encyclopedia of a type – massively “everything about everything.” There are other kinds of encyclopedia, which have different uses.

Publisher Backtalk: Let’s Circulate Knowledge

By Karen Christensen — Library Journal, 11/15/2009

I’m an encyclopedia publisher who hasn’t always loved encyclopedias. But in an era when information is everywhere yet understanding and wisdom are hard to find, I’ve come to realize how valuable they can be.

“People still buy encyclopedias?” is a question I am often asked at dinner parties. “Doesn’t Wikipedia make all that obsolete?” The people who ask me that buy serious books by serious writers and read Foreign Affairs. They have children in private schools that have strict rules about information sources. They work in companies or at think tanks that buy expensive specialist information and subscribe to pricey online databases. But they use nothing they recognize as an encyclopedia in the course of their lives.

Editor’s Introduction: A Haven of Calm
Librarian Backtalk: Let’s Circulate Librarians
Publisher Backtalk: Let’s Circulate Knowledge
E-Reference Ratings
New Releases
Publishers Index
Reference Bestsellers

I’m not like some of our editors who adore the endless detail work involved in bringing a top-notch reference publication to press. It’s the big ideas that energize me and the chance to chart new academic fields. I love the opportunity to get to know exceptional scholars. The relationships are warm—they appreciate a publisher who throws herself into their world—and they express amazement at the way I manage to get so many people to write on time and to get huge publications out quickly.

No room for compromise

Nevertheless, the skepticism I have begun to encounter from people I consider smart has made me wonder if published encyclopedias haven’t just seen better days. Perhaps they are becoming obsolete. In some cases, quality has dropped, as some publishers, faced with budget pressures, have taken too many shortcuts.

Then I started working on the Encyclopedia of China and found out just what encyclopedias can do when one is facing a subject that is a whole world in itself. An encyclopedia ought to provide a terrain you can get to know, filled with familiar landmarks and faces. It should give you a sense of confidence from the first steps you take, as you see that you have a guide you can trust.

In fact, I’ve come to see the encyclopedia as the Greeks did: “a complete course of instruction in all parts of knowledge” (Britannica, 1911 ed.), providing crisp short-form content that is perfect for our fast-paced world and for students who want information at a touch. The ideas of the classical world, it seems, find new life in this uniquely challenging time in human history.

It’s perfect synchronicity that my newfound passion comes out of working on the Encyclopedia of China, since the Chinese created both the oldest and largest encyclopedias in the world. The Yongle Dadian (Great Compendium of the Yongle Reign), for example, was an 11,095-volume work, with 22,877 chapters and a 60-chapter-long table of contents. It was put together by a staff of compilers, editors, and scribes during a five-year period and was finally completed in 1408.

Coming full circle

“Knowledge is power,” said Francis Bacon, and an encyclopedia can offer the combined knowledge and wisdom of hundreds of people who have devoted their careers to research and teaching. A publisher needs to manage people and ideas creatively, given all the financial pressures we face today, in order to develop the works that 21st-century libraries need to serve their increasingly varied clientele.

Over the past year, I have found myself thinking of an encyclopedia as a circle of knowledge that rises from the interconnected networks with which we work. The other day I noticed that the covers of all our new publications include a circular shape, an image of opening. On the Encyclopedia of China there is an opening fan. On the Encyclopedia of Sustainability there are unfurling fern fronds. For the new edition of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, we superimposed a nautilus shell spiral over the first edition’s “cave art” cover (which includes skateboarders and people in business suits).

This was not conscious planning, but it has confirmed that my role as an encyclopedia publisher is to build circles of knowledge that are ever-opening but also bound in ways that make them both useful and beautiful. This does not just apply to Berkshire; it is a shared endeavor, for publishers and librarians, authors and teachers. It depends on new forms of networking as well as on the best traditions of scholarly and information management. It can exist harmoniously with Google and Wikipedia, which are exciting, untamed bazaars full of wonderful things as well as dross.

Our job in this new century is to create something like the traditional Chinese teahouse of antiquity, a haven of calm within a wild world. A haven where readers and researchers can find sustenance, inspiration, and community, too.

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