Encyclopedias and the Cult of Entertainment

By Rehig, James | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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Encyclopedias and the Cult of Entertainment


Rehig, James, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Every encyclopedia is a product, not just of its editors' vision, ideas, and abilities, but also of its time. This has been true since Pliny the Elder created the antecedent to today's encyclopedia during the first century A.D. As societies change, so do their literary genres. Just think of the transformation of the novel since Freud, Einstein, Picasso, and others profoundly changed the nineteenth-century view of human nature and our place in the cosmos. The model of the encyclopedia that anyone over the age of twenty-five probably carries in his or her head is several centuries old, codified by the practices adopted by Diderot in his great encyclopedia in the eighteenth century. It was a product of the Western European enlightenment--an age devoted to the premise that the world could be known through human reason and that knowledge of the world could be presented in a coherent, accessible way using the convention of the Roman alphabet as an organizing principle.

As a Baby Boomer child of the 1950s, this model of the encyclopedia was inculcated into me by a variety of powerful social institutions. These included family and school. A dear aunt who, in the absence of children of her own, treated me and my siblings as her own, scrimped and saved to buy us a copy of the Britannica Junior. My brother, who, since childhood, was an individual of boundless intellectual curiosity, set out to read it in its entirety, embarking with the letter "A" and progressing through the rest of the alphabet. After that encyclopedia's wondrous arrival (including a handsome wooden bookcase designed to accommodate it and several yearbooks), rare was the school assignment that did not draw on its contents.

In school, an energetic and enthusiastic sales representative of the World Book enrolled my classmates and me in the "Look It Up Club." This involved in-class presentations by the sales representative and bestowal on each student of a small tin button bearing the words "Look It Up Club." Perhaps prophetically (or maybe I was just an odd kid), I kept my button for years and years. I suspect that within weeks most of my classmates lost theirs, either by accident or on purpose. Nevertheless, those buttons signified our membership in that elite group of students who not only knew about the A-to-Z arrangement of articles in the World Book, but who also understood the power and potential of the set's index and its `network of references among articles. Among fifth graders, we proud "Look It Up Club" members were that era's power users of the World Book.

A Radical Transformation

Family, school, and even the encyclopedia itself--three powerful institutions whose power was unquestionably acknowledged in the 1950s--imprinted both the value and the form of the encyclopedia on me. Forty years later, things have changed. The state of the family and the quality of school, sacred cows in the 1950s, are questioned, redefined, and hotly debated today. And the encyclopedia also has come under reexamination. However, to understand the encyclopedia in the late 1990s and its possible future, we must first examine values and trends in the society within which it exists--the society that creates it and that, perhaps, it helps create.

The encyclopedia has undergone a radical transformation during the past fifteen years. It started with the simple porting over of imageless ASCII text to pre-Web online systems. Wasn't it World Book that briefly pioneered as a presence on CompuServe until its editors decided that the World Book as text without images was not really the World Book? Then we had text-only CD-ROM encyclopedias, followed by text-and-still-image encyclopedias, followed by text-still-image-sound-and-video CD-ROM encyclopedias, followed by text-still-image-sound-and-video CD-ROM encyclopedias including simulations and animations, followed by text- still image-sound-and-video CD-ROM encyclopedias including simulations and animations and links to Web sites, followed, of course, by online interactive encyclopedias combining all of the above.

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