Saturday, June 14, 2008

BPN 1128 Encyclopaedia Britannica: repressive tolerance

I recently saw a quite remarkable news item on the Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB). With a background of 10 years in Dutch language reference works, I was eager to see what was the next step of EB. I heard of the EB when I started my publishing career in the reference department of the Dutch publisher Het Spectrum Uitgeverij. The company had just been bought by VNU and needed a kind of flagship. In 1969 the first plans were formulated for the Great Spectrum Encyclopedia (Grote Spectrum Encyclopedie, abbreviated to GSE). In 1970 I walked in and became the first editor (in time; not in rank) of the GSE. One of the first jobs was to familiarise myself with the various editorial formulae: alphabetical order; systematic formula; hybrid formula, using a systematic approach in alphabetical order. It was a great time. Besides it was the first time that I was involved in a project, where a computer was used for editorial purposes; a computer was in fashion as an enlarged calculator but not as an editorial tool. In the Netherlands, already Excerpta Medica was using the computer for editing editorial tools, photo-typesetting and as archive; as Excerpta Medica had a terminology thesaurus at the heart of its operation, the computer took care that no dead links and senseless links were created and recorded. In that environment I got familiar with the EB. It was a fascinating time.

I have been watching the EB during the CD-ROM decade (1985-1995) and later on into the internet era. It has been a stormy time for EB to survive. With internet as the new encyclopedia, EB lost influence dramatically. EB got a real blow when Wikipedia appeared on the horizon and when the scientific magazine Nature made a comparison between articles in EB and Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles were as good as EB articles. The EB rebuttal in a 20 page paper did not have much effect. But it has set the editorial staff of EB thinking.

It has taken some time, but EB will now allow users to write for the encyclopedia. Users will be able to send in contributions, but in contrast to Wikipedia, the users will not be able to adapt the content of the articles right away.

The publisher of the EB says that he will not shirk his responsibility and give in to the wisdom of the crowds and mass intelligence. Editors will remain responsible for the content of the articles and decide on what user information is incorporated. User will have to make themselves known by first name and surname. Experts in certain fields, who can demonstrate their expertise, will get more freedom in changing and adding to the articles. The new system is called ‘together, but not democratic’; it is basically a repressively tolerant editorial policy. It is clear the Wikipedia is hurting EB. Wikipedia is indexed completely, while EB is not. The renewed site of EB is still beta.

Blog Posting Number: 1128

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