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
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
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. …