Decennial ABC: B as in Balance

Is it still a requirement that an (online) encyclopedia has to be balanced?

By balance, critics of encyclopedias think of the content. If the publisher advertises a reference work of general interest he is supposed to deliver a balanced compendium on different subjects.

Many famous encyclopedias have been less balanced or universal as one might expect. Pliny’s Naturalis historia dealt with ‘cultural’ subjects as it did with ‘natural’ subjects, but obviously the bulk of the content was about the earth and its living beings, about crafts and agriculture. The visual arts found a place next to metallurgy and mineralogy.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, and even beyond, encyclopedias belonged usually to one of two groups:

  • ‘Dictionaries of the arts and sciences’ were occupied mainly with nature and crafts. Note that science then included also theology. Examples: Lexicon technicum (Harris), Cyclopaedia (Chambers), Deutsche Taschen Enzyklopädie (Hasse).
  • ‘Dictionaires historiques’ and ‘Konversationslexika’ had their focus on history, geography and biography. Examples: Grand dictionnaire historique (Moréri), Ersch-Gruber.

During the 18th century the two types started to mix, and encyclopedias became increasingly universal. Zedler’s Universal-Lexicon (a huge work of 64 volumes) was the champion of this evolution. [1]

According to Ulrike Spree the general lexika in Germany of the early 19th century wanted to serve the development of a learned conversation, as a base for the upcoming public opinion. These lexika were interested more in history and politics than science (in the modern sence), and had to be up-to-date. In Britain, it was the other way round. Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) started in 1768 as a dictionary of the arts and sciences, only later the publishers added geography, history and so on. ‘Not the significance at a given time, but the importance of a subject by itself, had to be decisive for the inclusion of an article into the lexicon.’ Later in the supplements after 1824 there was much more attention to politics. [2]

It remained difficult for encyclopedias to keep an overview and maintain balance. Harvey Einbinder criticises how in the EB of 1958 the presidency of Calvin Coolidge is given more space than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s with his dramatic life, ‘a balance that reflects the EB’s haphazard editorial standards’. [3]

Sierpinski pyramid by Solkoll, public domain

Just recently, a German professor of law complained in his vademecum for students that there is no balance in Wikipedia. ‘Homer Simpson’ (the cartoon character) has more lines than ‘Homer’ (the ancient author), and ‘Robbie Williams’ more than ‘Béla Bartók’:

As long as inclusionists want to collect as much information as possible also about obscure subjects (there is enough space for everything), while exclusionists want to keep up quality and relevance (not everything has to be mentioned in a lexicon), a unified policy will hardly be found. (Roland Schimmel) [4]

There exists also another kind of lack of balance: Jeff Loveland finds it striking how ambitious encyclopedias were at the beginning, and how much impatient and sloppy at the end. Take Encyclopaedia Britannica, first edition. A-B delivers as much material as M-Z does. In the Universal history by Dennis de Coetlogon one-third of the text appeared under A-C. [5]

Because of a major difference, the readers of Wikipedia don’t have to bother much. When you bought a printed encyclopedia you had the right to ask for a good ‘balance’. But nobody buys Wikipedia, and the reader is happy when he finds enough about the subjects he is interested in. It doesn’t matter to him that other subjects are covered much better.


Previously: A as in Advertisement


[1] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, pp. 7/8.

[2] Ulrike Spree: Das Streben nach Wissen. Eine vergleichende Gattungsgeschichte der populären Enzyklopädie in Deutschland und Großbritannien im 19. Jahrhundert, Niemeyer 2000, pp. 36/37.

[3] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 148.

[4] p. 10

[5] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, pp. 88/89.


5 thoughts on “Decennial ABC: B as in Balance

  1. The “balance over time” aspect is also very well-know problem in many long-term lexicographic project, and a topic of general concern in the lexicography literature.

    1. Indeed, and just now I have read how much the balance or imbalance depended on the personal interests of the author…

  2. This is a recurring theme… “What is the point of articles on Pokemon characters?” “Why do we have al these stubs about French villages with less than 300 inhabitants?” “What is the relevance of articles on local soccer teams?” Over the years my opinion has shifted somewhat. My present stance: (1) An article that I find completely irrelevant may still be appreciated by someone else. (2) I takes up a number of bytes on a server in the Wikipedia HQ, but I haven’t heard yet that we are running out of space. (3) It doesn’t take up any space in my bookshelf, and I’m not paying for it. (4) I prefer to to spend time on these issues but rathet occupy myself with keeping “my” articles up to date. Another point: you never know when you might be looking for what sort of information. A few years ago, our son was going to work on a French campsite. Finding out which subway he had to use from the Gare du Nord to the Gare d’Austerlitz was a matter of minutes, if as long as that. So, yes, Wikipedia is likely to be less than balanced. As long as the subject that I find relevant are covered sufficiently -both in terms of detail and in terms of quality- I’ll happily let my companions cover their field of admittedly sometimes curious interests. I think it is hard to understand Wikipedia if you don’t appreciate it’s mild eccentricity.

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