Tradition Unbound Encyclopedias Braving the Challenge of Cyberspace

By Edward Rothstein 1996 N. Y. Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Tradition Unbound Encyclopedias Braving the Challenge of Cyberspace


Edward Rothstein 1996 N. Y. Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


It almost seems illicit, logging on to the Web site of the Encyclopedia Britannica (http://www.eb.com) and looking up the word "Encyclopedia." It is as if one were cheating, not taking the subject seriously enough. The weightless medium seems ill suited to the weighty message.

And what a message: the entry is an almost epic account of the encyclopedia's evolution, a chronicle of the thousands of volumes in Latin, French, German, even Burmese, compiled over 2000 years. Along the way there are references to a 240-volume Chinese encyclopedia published in 1738, and a 19th-century German encyclopedia that devoted 3,668 pages to one entry on Greece.

Due credit is given to Diderot and d'Alembert's 18th-century celebration of the French Enlightenment, and mention is made of an imposing 9,000-page Egyptian encyclopedia from the 14th century. But what connection do those traditional tomes have with the future, now that text is summoned by mouse clicks, invoked by hypertext links, and accompanied by music or video? Aside from quick and sometimes elegant searches, what added value does the Internet and the CD-ROM promise for the encyclopedia? The questions are more complicated than they seem. The Britannica entry notes that an encyclopedia is an archetypal representation of its era and culture. An encyclopedia (the word is from the Greek, meaning a circle of knowledge) was originally meant not just to compile knowledge but to give it shape. An encyclopedia's gargantuan size was part of the point: it was a printed model of the world in print, mirroring the universe and the authors' understanding of it. Thus, in the Sixth century, one important Roman encyclopedia was divid ed into Divine and Human categories. A Ninth-century Arabic encyclopedia set priorities by beginning with discussions of power and war and ending with entries on food and women. And Francis Bacon, in 1620, set as his goal a "total reconstruction of the arts and all human knowledge," creating sections devoted to Nature, Man, and Man's Action on Nature. Alphabetical encyclopedias really began to thrive only during the 17th century, developing along with cross references and detailed indexes. This ordering served a different reader and a different purpose: the encyclopedia became a tool, something to be consulted. The world was not being given meaning, it was simply being presented for appreciation. The encyclopedia became almost impersonal, a presumably objective presentation of the public record. New technologies may end up changing the encyclopedia's tone and structure again. Alphabetically ordered entries, for example, have become irrelevant; with sophisticated search engines, they are no longer necessary. What kind of order, though, can be given to knowledge when each user ends up creating a different structure, leaping about as if surfing the Net? Will distinctions between subjects dissolve? Right now, it is hard to tell. Many important encyclopedias are just being translated into the new medium, not being transformed by it. The $1,300 McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (Version 1.1), compresses 20 volumes onto a CD-ROM. It offers the same, nearly definitive information as its printed ancestor; 39 animated sequences and 45 minutes of audio are dwarfed by vast quantity of technical prose. …

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Tradition Unbound Encyclopedias Braving the Challenge of Cyberspace
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