Marketing Encyclopedia Britannica

Hugh Chisholm, 1866-1924

Hugh Chisholm, the public intellectual

I was in a second-hand bookshop the other day, and there was a small multivolume encyclopedia piled in the corner. Probably nobody had looked in that corner for months, and quite right too. Who needs an out-of-date encyclopedia?

Yet what was out of date about it was not just that it reported facts and opinions up to the time it was printed – perhaps thirty or forty years ago. What was far more fundamentally out of date was the approach behind it.

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The Innocence of Wikipedians

By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Perhaps it is the innocence of Jimmy Whale,  Wikipedia’s founder, or perhaps it is an innocence shared by all the Wikipedia editors. Either way, Wikipedia is surrounded by a sweet optimism that is at odds with the reality of the actual articles. Yesterday the Financial Times published an article by John Thornhill praising Wikipedia’s truthfulness. Incredible though it may seem, Thornhill describes Wikipedia in the following idyllic way:

Its volunteer contributors stick to a neutral point of view and agree among themselves what constitute reliable sources.

I’m sure this is the view of the majority of Wikipedians – and it would appear to be the view of Jimmy Whale as well.

Mr Wales said the site was relatively impartial because it had shunned advertising. Wikipedians wrote entries according to the subject’s interest rather than from any impulse to chase clicks. “We all know that the DNA of any organisation tends to follow the money.”

Such a statement ignores the thousands of Wikipedia articles created by companies to promote their products and brands. Because the rules of Wikipedia allow anyone to compile or to edit any article anonymously, Wikipedia has become full of product placement, woefully untrue statements, and articles placed by PR departments as seemingly neutral endorsements of the product – see, for example, my posts Wikipedia v. a tube of toothpaste, for example; quite apart from the endless re-editing of articles when a possibly valid statement is repeatedly replaced by a statement that could never be validated – see Will Wikipedia ever get their facts right? .  I’ve also pointed out that the number of articles is growing far more quickly than the number of volunteer editors. A large, and growing, proportion of Wikipedia articles has never been edited by a Wikipedian, in other words. I hope they are unbiased and accurate. I’m sure they are.

Mr Thornhill quotes approvingly how the article for George W Bush has been edited over 45,000 times – concluding that “truth on Wikipedia is always a malleable commodity”. He seems to agree with Mr Wales that placing authors of diametrically opposed views in a room together will lead to an agreed viewpoint – the kind of attitude that most people lose by the time they get to university. He quotes Wales’s view:

It will take some time before they come to a consensus view but we are trying.”

My argument is that Wikipedia has created a world where some entries are battlefields between contributors, but also with thousands of articles that are flagrantly biased, and will probably never be corrected. Why should a volunteer edit the entry for a brand of toothpaste that a PR agency was paid to create? Don’t they have better things to do? Somewhere between the vision of Diderot’s Encyclopedia and Wikipedia something was lost, or perhaps, more precisely, some naivety crept in. I’m not surprised Wikipedia editors show it, but I am astonished that FT contributors can believe it as well.

Will Wikipedia ever get their facts right?


Image: Ryan McGuire

Editing Wikipedia appears to some (including me) to be an endless road – it goes on and on, and is never concluded. And that doesn’t mean it gets better – even when highly experienced Wikipedia editors are on the case. Here is an example.

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How not to find things with Pevsner

Pevsner Bedfordshire cover

I hesitate to criticize Pevsner’s Buildings of England series; I have used the books with immense pleasure for many years. Pevsner appears not only to have seen everything, but to have an informed and perceptive (and often pointed ) comment about what he sees. However, if I were to complain, it would be about the information navigation rather than the content. I’ve just bought the volume for Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough, which, as the title might suggest, was probably not the easiest volume to put together. After several years of using the series, this is the first time I’ve suggested some improvements to the navigation:

  1. Include one index per volume. If you must, have one index for people, one index for places. But having a separate index for Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire in one volume is just a nightmare. In fact, several aspects of this volume raise questions. According to the Foreword, the first edition of the book got off to a bad start; research began in 1964, then in 1965 the County of Huntington and Peterborough was formed. This county was then abolished in 1974. Given that Pevsner volumes were being published alongside all these county boundary changes, it is perhaps not such a surprise when publishers admit that three villages were omitted from Pevsner altogether in the muddle of changing county boundaries between editions of individual volumes.
  2. I can understand the problems of county reorganisation, but why does a 2014 edition stick with the county boundaries of 1974? Don’t stick to a superseded taxonomy. English county boundaries of 1974 is not a good organising principle.
  3. Perambulations (the glorious Pevsner term for guided walks) are a nightmare and I always get lost. I defy anyone to follow a perambulation in its entirety. The style is to list only buildings of interest, so whole rows of buildings, even whole streets, are ignored while we magically follow Pevsner in his quest for beauty. Trouble is, the building he refers to is often only by such cryptic terms as “further down” (not stating clearly that the next building described is several blocks away from where you are currently standing). For perambulations  follow the system in Pevsner city guides – a much clearer description of walks, and one that is easy to follow.
  4. Improve the maps – include some features such as roads and/or railways (to be fair, this is now starting to happen in the recent volumes). Drop the unique grid reference system and replace them by OS grid references. This would enable things to be found via satnav systems.
  5. We are steadily moving towards a digital world. There exists already an incomplete  Pevsner index ( from 1999, but this URL was broken, and of course, as the volumes are revised, the index will go out of date again.
  6. Have the pictures adjacent to the text they are describing. This is done very successfully in the Pevsner City Guides.
  7. Don’t start each entry for a town or village with the Church of England church, followed by Catholic and other denominations – it shows an outdated pecking order that is not appropriate or even very sensitive.Even the Pevsner City Guides start usually with the cathedral (at least, my City Guide to Sheffield does).

The final problem, perhaps one of the most challenging to address, is that in a book of several hundred pages, it is very difficult to find out which things to see. There is an introduction, which requires you to sit down and consider a county in its own right without any of its neighbours (and Cambridge has five counties within a few miles), but it is very easy not to notice a fascinating church or building just a few miles away. Simon Jenkins with his star ratings for the 1,000 best churches in England gives me the comfort that I haven’t missed anything major in the vicinity.

Histropedia – a new way to visualize history?

Histropedia is a site that enables you to create timelines from Wikipedia entries.  According to the two founders of Histropedia (a very klunky name, which makes me think of histrionics), it is “a new type of website that will transform the way we visualise history”. Well, it certainly enables history timelines to be created instantly; whether that means it has transformed the way we visualise history is another matter.

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How taxonomy becomes political

A recent book on Alfred Kinsey (Donna Drucker, The Classification of Sex, University of Pittsburgh Press) describes Kinsey’s great innovation as taxonomic.

By ordering individuals on a scale of 0-6 instead of a heterosexual-bisexual-homosexual triad model (or even a binary heterosexual-homosexual model), Kinsey shifted the modern conversation about sexual behavior toward a form of classification that re-envisioned a world in which multiple varieties and combinations of sexual desire, behavior, and fantasy would be culturally, scientifically, and politically normal.

[quoted by Ivan Crozier in the TLS March 20  2015]

A simple act of reclassification helped change the way society viewed sexual orientation. It would be good to think that every new taxonomy (linked, as here, to a new way of sampling and analyzing data) could change the way the world thinks!

A Brief History of Encyclopaedias – too brief, and not brief enough

Andrew Brown: A Brief History of Encyclopaedias

(Hesperus, 2011)

Anyone who includes spoof encyclopedia titles on the book cover (A Complete Guide to Dysslexia), and starts a book about encyclopedias with a joke can’t be entirely dismissed. Andrew Brown starts his book as follows:

I may not be the best person to write a history of encyclopaedias, however brief: I have never read one. Not all the way through.

Unfortunately, the jokes in the rest of the book are either more stretched, or rather overshadowed at times by the author drawing attention to his own learning. In fact, Mr Brown commits the crime of breaking one of the more important rules of encyclopedias: the task is to make the content accessible, not to persuade the reader that you are clever and they are not.  The author has chosen not to use footnotes or to quote his sources, but he nonetheless refers to authors he has read by their surname only. Now, regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of Tom McArthur, but how many readers of this book will identify a reference to him. It is surprising to encounter, in a book about encyclopedias, the statement “this etymology is, according to the best of today’s sources, correct.” Given Brown’s point about the relative nature of knowledge, it is impressive indeed that our age has reached the definitive statement of the truth, and Mr Brown doesn’t need to tell us which source that statement was derived from.

Brown’s brief history manages to be brief but nevertheless dull in parts.  It is all of 107 pages long, of which only 74 pages are the history (and at around 300 words a page, this totals just 22,000 words), while the last section, in keeping with the series style, includes some examples of the genre, labelled “A short dictionary of encyclopaedic themes”.  I thought these might be spoof encyclopedia entries, but unfortunately, they are not; they are simply discussions arranged in paragraphs labelled A to Z.

Regrettably, the author also fails to illustrate some of his key points. There is a good description of Pierre Bayle, and a fascinating link to Moliere, but not a line from any of Bayle’s works. In contrast, some of the wackier medieval encyclopedias are quoted in detail to show how much was copied from one compilation to another.

The division of space in this short book is curious. It would be a masterpiece of compression to keep the history of encyclopedias this short, yet Mr Brown devotes eleven pages to Arabic encyclopedias and eight pages to Chinese encyclopedias –  and in claiming that many of them are nothing but vast lists, he manages to create an interminable list himself. We learn little that is distinctive about the Chinese encyclopedia, and we aren’t encouraged to learn when the author uses terms without explaining them: we are told that the 1725 Gujin tushu Sicheng is the largest of the leishu to be still in existence. This is fascinating, but what is a leishu? More space is allotted to early editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica than to Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Yet Wikipedia, which could be described as the most radical encyclopedia ever, is given only two pages.

All in all, a fascinating subject, but covered in a quirky treatment that is only compelling in parts.

The Future of Reference Publishing: the Wiley view

A recent ALPSP meeting (February 2015) included a talk about the future of reference publishing.  The speaker, David Hughes, is Editorial Director for Major Works at John Wiley, so he should know.  He stated the major competition to paid-access reference content was Wikipedia. According to him, the way in which Wiley could deal with this competition was to:

  • Ensure the use of reference remains relevant for users
  • Articulate what makes their content better (“be differentiated from freely available content”)
  • Identify pain points for end users, to encourage usage
  • Make sure the reference product fits into the workflow of end users
  • Create bespoke new taxonomies (e.g. for Wiley StatsRef)
  • Create new platform(s) for reference publishing to make it more intuitive to use, more discoverable and to enhance the collections.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to state the intention than to work out just what needs to be done. Exactly what are the pain points for users when they use Wikipedia?  You could argue there are as many pain points when using paid content:

  • It’s a pain to log in
  • You have to go to a separate site for each subject, whereas Wikipedia covers every subject
  • You may not know if Wiley publish a dictionary of X or Y, while you can be certain that Wikipedia will have something on it.

Perhaps more interesting are the bespoke taxonomies and fitting with the workflow of end users. Perhaps these were articulated more at the presentation itself, but each of them would require some elaboration to be understood in detail.

Tom McArthur, Worlds of Reference (1986)

Tom McArthur’s book is essential reading in the world of reference, although perhaps that is faint praise for a subject that has so few books dedicated to it. However, reading the book is tough going. The author makes it difficult for us to reach the nuggets of genuine insight, since they are often hidden away at the end of chapters that ostensibly are about something completely different. It is as if there are two competing books fighting each other throughout this one. This conflict is revealed in chapter two:

When I first started the work that led to this book I thought I was engaged in outlining the history of lexicography and its related disciplines. … I was in fact toying with a distinct way of looking at human history.

Unfortunately, the author has been as good as his word and has attempted a distinct way of looking at human history (about which more below).

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The real drama of the Encyclopédie

Le roman vrai de l'Encyclopedie   I’ve been reading about the French Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, in the lovely illustrated Gallimard Decouvertes volume authored by Francois Moureau, which he entitles Le roman vrai de l’Encyclopédie [ The real novel of the Encyclopedia], first published 1990). The book itself  rather ignored the “real novel”, which I supposed to mean the controversy that the Encyclopedia caused.  Moureau in fact did not make the most of the subject. It didn’t go into many of the controversies around the supposed atheism of many of the entries.  It did cover in lots of detail the many illustrations in the Encyclopédie, although for a modern reader it is difficult to see if these plates represented a radical new way of looking at things for their time, or simply (as Moureau suggests) a way of masking the radicalism of much of the text alongside the plates. Revealingly, when the Encyclopédie was banned, volumes containing the plates continued to be published without any censorship.   Moureau’s volume only touched on what has been one of the most fruitful areas of study in recent years, the publishing history and reception of the Encyclopédie. Moureau points out there were an estimated 25,000 pirated copies in print between 1751 and 1782 (presumably of individual volumes rather than the entire set).  Where these volumes came from, and who read them, would be a fascinating subject.


The Moureau book only hints at the controversies around the Encyclopedia, for example pointing out that the article for “certitude” (what a topic for an encyclopedia!), was written by priest but then accused of being atheistic. This in itself suggests the situation was not that the article writers were all deists or atheists, but that even clerical writers could be accused of unorthodoxy. But Moureau doesn’t tell us precisely why the article was accused of atheism.  In fact, Moureau concludes that the Encyclopédie was “Moins lue que critiquée, et moins influente par son contenu que par es polémiques qu’elle suscita “[less read than condemned, and less influential for its contents than for the arguments it aroused]. Of course, if that is the case, it makes the subject matter of the book not the book itself, but the society in which the Encyclopédie was published – rather more difficult to include in a short introduction.


The bibliography to Moureau’s book listed only seven titles, of which one was Robert Darnton’s The Business of Enlightenment: a Publishing History of the Encyclopedia (1987). I discovered a review of Darnton’s book by Simon Schama in the London Review of Books.  Schama praises Darnton’s book for revealing the success of the quarto (pocket-sized) editions of the Encyclopédie, rather than the original folio (large-sized and expensive) edition.  I assume he means by this the revised version proposed (and published) by the Parisian bookseller Panckoucke, who invited Diderot to manage this new edition. Schama writes of Diderot’s “ill-tempered refusal to have anything to do with a proposed revised version, in 1768”, and explains, in a sentence I fail to understand:


This was not because his [Diderot’s] editorial genius could not bear the prospect of alterations to the sacred text, but for precisely the opposite reasons. He now regarded the whole Encyclopédie as ‘un gouffre où ces espèces de chiffoniers jetèrent pêlemêle une infinité de choses mal digérées, bonnes, mauvaises, détestables, vraies, fausses, incertaines et toujours incohérentes’ [a chasm where those species of  rag merchants throw pell-mell a mass of undigested things, good, bad, detestable, true, false, uncertain and always incoherent].


If Diderot meant the original Encyclopédie was a hotchpotch, it wouldn’t say much for his editorial management skills. If he feared that Panckoucke’s revised version was likely to be a muddle, then surely it was more likely to be so without him.   Panckoucke, spotting an opportunity, proceeded to publish a thematic, not alphabetic, version of an encyclopedia, called the Encyclopédie methodique, which reached 166 volumes by the end of the series in 1832. But Diderot didn’t do so badly out of the Encyclopédie either: he was hired to manage five volumes, but delivered 28, and was paid well for all of them.

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