Decennial ABC: O as in Order

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
  • Index.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition. At the beginning the one volume of Propaedia, green-spined. Following red-spined Micropaedia and then Macropaedia, and two blue-spined Index volumes.

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.

Mortimer J. Adler: ‘… the Propaedia provides the reader who wishes to pursue the study of a whole field of knowledge with an easily used guide.’

‘Suggested reading’ offers me for Macropaedia, among others, ‘Computers’, ‘Information / Processing and Information Systems’, and ‘Printing, Typography and Photoengraving’. For Micropaedia, I am offered only some ‘selected entries of information’. Theses entries (articles), by the way, follow a new division. Among them there is ‘word processing’.

Now imagine that I did not recognize that ‘word processing’ is actually the term I am looking for. So I go to the most general Macopaedia article in the list, name ‘Computers’. In volume 16, it covers pages 639-652. Thanks to the table of contents at the beginning of this article, I find the section ‘Computer Software’ and its sub section ‘Language processors’. Sounds good, but does not help. Bingo: There is also a section ‘Applications of computers’, with the sub section ‘Applications of personal computers’, p. 646.

That sub section starts with an introduction e.g. about ‘document preparation’. Then there are three (sub) sub sections, the first one has the title ‘text editing programs’. It says that these programs are very useful, but does not answer my historical question (since when they exist). That’s my result after 10-15 minutes.


Luckily, I now have learned the term ‘text editing program’, and I take the two Index volumes . On p. 957 of ‘L-Z’, I find the entry ‘text editing program (computing)’, with the explanation: ‘applications of personal computers’: volume 16: 646: 2a. That’s where I already have been, in Macropaedia article ‘Computers’. But then follows the decisive hint: ‘see also: word processing’! On p. 1169 of the same Index volume, the entry ‘word processing’ leads me to volume 12: 751: 2b.

They mean volume 12 of Micropaedia, the short-article-part of EB. There I find a nice article that tells me that the first modern word processing machine was the ‘Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter’ by IBM, 1964. Finally.

I should have read not the preface to the Propaedia, but the preface to the Index, saying that ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica is so vast a work that it cannot be used to greatest advantage without first consulting the Index.’ (My emphasis.)

May I complain to Mortimer J. Adler that his ‘Circle of Learning’ turned out for me more like a ‘Circle of Searching’?


Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, N as in Neutrality


4 thoughts on “Decennial ABC: O as in Order

  1. While a lot of people use the search engine I believe the hyperlinks between articles are a more used tool for navigating between articles.

    Even if I use the search engine to start with I usually navigate from my starting page to other pages for more information. From most pages there are links to similar terms (or even complete disambiguation pages of similar terms), to pages that deal in more detail with specific aspects, to pages on the same subject in other languages, navigation boxes with links to related items, links to explanations for technical terms and a See also section with links to other stuff I could be looking for that doesn’t fit in any of the the above.

    Hyperlinks are the killer feature that keeps users on the site, looking at more pages, because the links on WP pages tend to be much more useful than the links on other information sites.

    1. I remember a video presentation (CPOV in Amsterdam??) where someone explained how commercial sites try to keep people on the site: there are plenty of links but only to other pages of the same site. Whereas Wikipedia, he said, has also a section with Weblinks leading to pages ‘outside’ Wikipedia.
      Still, as described in G as in Google, many people click on some links but ultimately return to the Google search. Do you know about research on Wikipedia surf behaviour, other than from the usability tests?

  2. I can recommend David Weinberger’s witty “Everything is Miscellaneous” which covers evolution of ordering principles. These days not only should an encyclopedia be differently ordered for me than for my neighbour. I want it differently ordered today than how I wanted it yesterday, when I had a different frame of mind. Something like “People in this same mood also liked…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s