November 13, 1999
Off the Page and Onto a PC Screen: An Encylopedic Mirror of What?
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
n the early years of this fading millennium, two words often
appeared in encyclopedia titles: "speculum" (mirror) and
"imago" (image). Encyclopedias were meant to reflect the world
while also giving it shape. And what enormous mirrors they were!
One Chinese encyclopedia from the 13th century filled 240 volumes.
The German-language General Encyclopedia (1818-89) reached volume
167 and was never even completed.
These textual universes were also meant to reflect the divisions
and categories of the surrounding world. The 10th-century Arabic
encyclopedia, Mafatih al-'Ulum (Key to the Sciences), was split
into two sections: indigenous knowledge (including jurisprudence,
secretarial duties and history) and foreign knowledge (philosophy,
logic, alchemy). One 12th-century European encyclopedia devoted an
entire section to a chronicle of events since Satan's fall.
The Enlightenment changed the categories, but not the ambition.
Francis Bacon, in the plans for his encyclopedia, intended "to
commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human
knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations." Until a few
hundred years ago, merely alphabetical organization was considered
to be, in Coleridge's words, a sign of "impudent ignorance" that
presented the world as a "huge, unconnected miscellany."
Forgive the encyclopedic introduction. I have been reading the
25,000-word entry on encyclopedia in the Britannica. After seeing
sales of its $1,500 set drop 80 percent in the early 1990s, after
stumbling into the Internet era a few years ago with a failed paid
subscription site, after being sold to a Swiss financier, the
Britannica -- the oldest and largest English encyclopedia -- became
freely available on the Internet (at www.britannica.com) in
Britannica is changing from an encyclopedia into a "portal,"
an entry point into the Web, including news (from The Washington
Post), weather, stock quotes and e-mail. Advertisements,
tailor-made for encyclopedia entries, will provide income. There
will also be be "e-commerce" deals and an online store.
Britannica wants to become an Internet brand.
This may have some advantages. Jorge Cauz, Britannica's senior
vice president for marketing, said a 100-member editorial staff is
setting up three-year cycles of continuous revision. About 50
percent of the text will remain intact over time; the total text
will end up being larger by about a third, and "broader topical
references" will be included.
But the very nature of the encyclopedia may also change. From
its first edition (1768) in Scotland, the Britannica's world mirror
was formed out of meticulously molded smaller ones. In its 14
editions, the Britannica published classic entries: Swinburne on
Keats, John Muir on Yosemite, Freud on psychoanalysis, Houdini on
conjuring, Einstein on space-time.
The Britannica's alphabetical organization, far from creating
"a huge unconnected miscellany," became a sign of both humility
and grandeur: humility because it acknowledged that no system could
encompass the world in all its complexity, and grandeur because it
asserted that there was still a way to present that immensity for
But about a decade ago, this model changed; it has been most
clearly reflected in Microsoft's CD-ROM encyclopedia, Encarta. The
new structure of knowledge is not conceptual or alphabetical. It is
technological. "Features" organize the encyclopedic world: time
lines, panoramic views, videos, audio snippets, virtual tours,
Encarta's actual content, in fact, often seems an accompaniment
to the razzle-dazzle technology. Monthly updates are available on
the Internet for a subscription fee and each year has seen welcome
improvements. But most of the text comes from Funk & Wagnall's and
Collier's -- decidedly second-rate encyclopedias.
So don't expect Encarta to be too revealing about
"encyclopedias," for example (an entry gives incorrect dates for
the Britannica). Even a subject close to Encarta's technological
heart -- the "Internet" -- is oddly treated; the Encarta 2000
edition has little information after 1997 and a sidebar is offered
from an antediluvian 1994 entry. Patchwork and miscellany seem more
common than systematic interpretations, a symptom perhaps of
hypertext and multimedia obsessions.
But the new technology isn't a problem in itself. It can provide
unusual opportunities to search, listen and watch, as in the
fascinating new release of Encarta Africana (Microsoft), with its
surveys of black American and African culture. And there are times
when the technology, even if imperfectly applied to a dated text,
is still of great use, as in the invaluable CD-ROM of the
Encyclopedia Judaica (Judaica Multimedia). Even Britannica's own
CD-ROM uses technology to illumine the text. The danger comes when
technology, instead of being a tool, determines the content.
For Britannica, though, the greatest risk may be not in
technological excess, but in Internet access. If income depends on
e-commerce, will emphases change to court clicks? Will as many
resources be devoted to a rarely consulted scholarly entry on, say,
Baroque opera as to a popular and commercially supported entry on,
say, rock music? Right now, the Web site offers a "Britannica.com
happening" featuring "psychedelic rock": it urges you to "turn
off your mind, relax and float downstream."
If systematic changes take place -- and the company insists they
will not -- the new categories of knowledge won't be in history or
divinity or the alphabet; they will be in revenue and click count.
Britannica.com would be constantly creating itself in response to
the demands of its readers. That sort of speculum might accurately
reflect the current universe, but not quite in the way the creators
of great encyclopedias had in mind.