What is the best order for the contents of an encyclopedia?
When people think about an encyclopedia, they have usually in mind the encyclopedia they grew up with. In most cases this was an encyclopedia with articles in alphabetical order. This order became dominant only in the 18th century, as the name ‘encyclopedia’ itself. Before, and in some cases also after, encyclopedic content was presented in a ‘systematical’ order, or let’s say ‘non-alphabetical’ because the alphabet can be regarded as a system, too.
The larger public likes the alphabetical order for quick reference, while many scholars and lexicographers found that order arbitrary: Abbasides comes between Abacus and Abdomen. They seemed also to be afraid that the user of a quick reference work obtains only bits of knowledge and misses the big picture. Their pet child was a ‘tree of knowledge’, often a scheme of the sciences and disciplines presented at least shortly in the preface to the encyclopedia.
As Spree and Loveland point out, the decision for the alphabetical order is not the end of the story. You still have to figure out whether your encyclopedia should have rather short articles or long articles. And if it’s long articles, they need an internal order, and sometimes it is difficult to decide under which of several suitable keywords you should describe one peticular thing.
Wikipedia combines short articles with long articles often within one article: the introduction (exposition) to each longer article should suffice to understand what the lemma is about, and for the rest of the article there is a guiding table of contents. Wikipedia has portals and categories for a non-alphabetical approach, and also a complete alphabetical index. Anyway, most readers use the search engine.
But how to help the searching reader in the age of printed works? Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) since the 1970s tried to provide several solutions to the problem in one work. EB was divided into essentially two parts, with two extra parts for the search:
- Micropaedia, a large number of short articles for ‘ready reference’,
- Macropaedia, a limited number of long articles for ‘knowledge in depth’,
- Propaedia, the systematical ‘outline of knowledge and guide to Britannica’, and later also an
In an essay or preface at the beginning of the Propaedia volume, Director of Planning Mortimer J. Adler explained ‘The Circle of Learning’. He cannot deny that every systematical outline of knowledge is arbitrary, but knowledge has no beginning and no end, comparable to a circle. Propaedia serves as a table of contents for the articles in Macropaedia and Micropaedia.
The idea is also that Propaedia helps you to find something even if you don’t know its name. So I tried it myself, having the EB of 1998 to my disposal. Imagine those computer programs you use to write texts, and that you don’t know the proper term for them. You are looking for the term and also want to know since when these programs exist.
Searching with Propaedia starts with ten major categories. ‘Part Seven: Technology’ (p. 12/13) sounds promising. Alright, there I see the sub category ’735. Technology of Information processing and of Communications Systems’. There on p. 290 I find ‘C. Office maschines’ with the keyword ‘word processors’. But there are also the sub categories ‘D. Computers’ and ‘H. Information processing and systems’… It does not matter: After these sub categories there follows ‘Suggested reading’, with a list of suitable articles in Macropaedia and Micropaedia, and these sub categories play no role there.