Decennial ABC: R as in Readers

What kind of readers you have in mind when you write in an encyclopaedia something like this: The Abyssinians are ‘black, or almost black, but not as ugly as the negroes.’

Probably, when Encyclopaedia Britannica editor William Smellie wrote (or copied) this in 1768, he did not imagine that black people read it. [1]

Dennis de Coetlogon, nearly a contemporary, seems not to have been very fond of craftsmen, servants and the lower classes. In the articles he complains about them. He preferred to write for gentlemen, and so his Universal history ‘features a strong stream of elitism’, with articles about falconry and other subjects for princes, Loveland explains. Among the subscribers were actually some craftsmen, but they must have been extraordinary rich to afford such an expensive work. [2]

Considering the immense costs, the readers of encyclopedias have been a very small group for a long time. According to Luff, the prefaces of medieval encyclopedias usually did not limit themselves to a certain readership. But even the more than 380 manuscripts of the Elucidarium came ‘practically never came into the possession of laymen’. The Livre de Sidrac, again, was read only by noblemen. An extreme example is the Hortus Deliciarum: Abbess Herrad compiled it exclusively for the nuns in her abbey. There it stayed for three and a half centuries. [3]

In the high time of encyclopedias, the 19th and 20th centuries, publishers liked to flatter their buyers and stressed out how smart a person must be who uses an encyclopedia. And when someone complained that encyclopedias provide only superficial knowledge and don’t really educate the readers, the answer of the publishers was: Our readers are educated already.

What makes Wikipedians so smart?

As Harvey Einbinder noticed, the Encyclopedia Americana of the 1960s boasted its ‘accuracy, thoroughness, and ease of use make it equally indispensable to the junior high school student and the most advanced scholar.’ He doubts that a text can really be indispensable for both, but ‘such difficulties are ignored by the copywriters and executives responsible for such exaggerated statements’. [4]

And Wikipedia? Some people believe that a new medium is a chance for a new culture, that now the time has come to give every single person on the planet access to the sum of all human knowledge. Indeed, they get the access, but as always the smart will be become smarter and the others… don’t, or worse.

Ulrike Spree at the end of her thesis says that the best reference works are those which listen to the motto of the publisher of Junior Pears Encyclopaedia: ‘A book like this one ought to be shaped not only by a body of contributors but by a body of readers.’“ [5]

She might give Wikipedia a chance, I hope.


Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, Q as in Quality


[1] Frank A. Kafker, Jeff Loveland: William Smellie’s edition: a modest start. In: Frank A. Kafker, Jeff Loveland (ed.): The Early Britannica (1768/1803). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2009, pp. 11-68, here p. 29.

[2] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, pp. 74-76.

[3] Robert Luff: Wissensvermittlung im europäischen Mittelalter. ‘Imago mundi’-Werke und ihre Prologe. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 1999, pp. 423/424.

[4] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), pp. 321/322.

[5] Ulrike Spree: Das Streben nach Wissen. Eine vergleichende Gattungsgeschichte der populären Enzyklopädie in Deutschland und Großbritannien im 19. Jahrhundert, Niemeyer 2000, p. 328.

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

Decennial ABC: H as in Hagiography

Who are greatest thinkers of history, according to Britannica?

A hagiography is a biographic text about a holy person, and typically the term refers to the vita of a Christian saint in the middle ages. In the modern context the term is polemic in nature, as nowadays famous people are admired but usually not considered holy. Instructional texts, and encyclopedias originated from schoolbooks, long presented historical persons as models for good behaviour, or for the opposite. Those black-white-descriptions did not have much room for differentiation, for a critical approach, or for impartiality. The immaculateness of the person was partially the reason for including her in the canon.

Eventually, some very positive descriptions had more base motives. Dennis de Coetlogon (Universal history, 1740s) seemingly expected a reward when praising for example the religious commitment of Edward Howard in the article ‘Heraldry’, or when Anthony Browne, Viscount of Montagu, in ‘Nobility’ is called ‘that excellent nobleman’. [1]

A peticular problem in small linguistic communities: It is not always easy to obtain reliable sources for a biography, or a neutral person to write about some else. This seems to be the case with the article ”Cseh, Andreo’ in the 1934 Enciklopedio de Esperanto.

Andreo Cseh (1895-1979), in the 1930s

There we read that the Catholic priest Cseh, an Hungarian from Rumania, in 1920 elaborated his famous teaching method for Esperanto, and that later in Sweden started his triumphant apostleship through various countries. His courses had such a success that the newspapers wrote about a renaissance of Esperanto. [2]

The entry was signed by Julia Isbrücker, who together with her husband Jan supported Cseh’s work. In later years, the adult children of the Isbrückers suspected their mother of having an inappropriate relationship with Cseh…

Writing about oneself or about good friends meets a lot of resistance among Wikipedians, although it is not definitely prohibited. In my duties as a mentor at German Wikipedia, I once had a mentee writing about a professor of law (professors are ‘relevant’ by definition). She asked me whether her text was good, and I said it was fine. A minor thing: She wrote that the person obtained his PhD and became a Dr. iur. As the person is a jurist, and as this is the usual title in Germany for a law PhD, the expression ‘Dr. iur.’ is superfluous and can be dropped. After some days, she replied: ‘I have asked again, and Herr Professor said that he does not want that.’ (The poor girl was obviously the assistant of the professor.)

No doubt that Wikipedia is sufficiently critical about Jimmy Wales; the article about him was created in June 2003. But how did the Encyclopaedia Britannica deal with ‘their’ people’? In the 1950s Britannica had a book series ‘Great Books’, and its prospectus presented a number of small portraits: Platon, Shakespeare, Freud and other great thinkers. I wondered, who were the three men in the center of the picture, in the big portraits. Indeed: the publishers of Encyclopaedia Britannica. [3]


Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, G as in Google


[1] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, p. 153.

[2] Enciklopedio de Esperanto, 1933/1934, s.v. ‘Cseh, Andreo’.

[3] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 337.

Decennial ABC: C as in Cooperations

At the end of the 19th century, Encyclopaedia Britannica was in financial trouble. But thanks to a cooperation with the London Times it was possible to reach a lot of new buyers by massive advertising. This worked well, but the reprinted content became increasingly dated. A journalist joked: ‘The Times is behind the Encyclopaedia, and the Encyclopaedia is behind the times.’ [1]

Among the many cooperations in the history of EB there was also the School Advancement Program in the 1950s. A school got a free set of Britannica Junior if fifteen sets were sold via the school. The EB company obtained names and addresses of parents from the school, and the company claimed that the school was subsidizing the purchase of a set. The Federal Trade Commission reacted with a Cease and Desist Order. [2]

Wikimedia Foundation in a few cases had a cooperation with a commercial enterprise in order to make some money, beyond the donations it essentially lives from. In 2009 it was made public that the Foundation signed an agreement with Orange. The telecom company paid for the Foundation’s support to improve incorporation of Wikimedia content into Orange products. [3] But in the end there were never much of these cooperations because the Foundation does not really have to offer something: the content itself is free, anyway.

Wikimedians use most commonly the expression ‘partnership’ to denote a cooperation with an institution that provides pictures. A notable early example is the 10,000 paintings (public domain) given by the German enterprise Directmedia in 2005. The American mineral dealer Robert Lavinsky helped with more than 50,000 pictures of minerals from his website. The biggest donation from a single institution are the 80,000 photographs by the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv), at the end of 2008.

In a different kind of cooperation, institutions like museums allow Wikimedians to visit them and take pictures by themselves. The initiative Wiki loves arts in the Netherlands collected in this way more than 4000 pictures (June 2009).

Some institutions try to gain a special benefit from the partnership. Bundesarchiv, for example, uploaded versions of its photographs in low resolution. The idea is that a high resolution version (maybe for a poster) can be bought from Bundesarchiv. Unfortunately, according to Mathias Schindler from Wikimedia Deutschland, Bundesarchiv has no intention to free more pictures. It was somewhat unhappy about people who reused the pictures without full respect to the licence obligations.

There are still a lot of opportunities for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.  It is to hope that the Wikimedia Bookshelf Project in future will provide more material for people who would like to cooperate.


Previously: A as in Advertisement, B as in Balance


[1] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), pp. 43-45.

[2] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 323.


Decennial ABC: A as in advertisement

Weren’t adverts traditionally what kept an encyclopedia running?

Wikipedia was originally a private project hosted by Jimmy Wales, an internet entrepreneur. When the project became too expensive the idea of accepting advertisements as a source of income came up. Finally Wales decided to pass Wikipedia to the newly found Wikimedia Foundation. Donations make it possible to keep Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects the way as they are, without advertisements. The issue, nonetheless, is still hotly discussed at Wikipedia.

In the history of encyclopedias, it was not too unusual to inform the readers about nice things to buy. John Harris wrote in his Lexicon technicum (1704) about mechanical instruments produced by specific instrument makers – most of them were subscribers of his work. Harris did not see anything wrong in that, it was the same to him as quoting from books, of course the best books there were. Isn’t quoting a kind of recommendation as well? [1]

Even in those times, the 18th century, there were lines that could be crossed. Dennis de Coetlogon used some treatises in his Universal history of the arts and sciences (1740s) to boast about his abilities as a doctor. At the end of the treatise ‘Chirurgery’ he mentions one of his inventions, a ‘vulnerary and styptic tincture’. His modern biographer, Jeff Loveland, calls him a ‘quack’ who mentions his tincture in several treatises and sees more and more diseases it cured. [2]

Later encyclopedias dropped that kind of business but went on with advertising for themselves. Encyclopedia Britannica in the 20th century spent much more on promotion than on improving content.[3] ‘Executives are ready to use any emotion that will help sell their product’, warned EB critic Harvey Einbinder, especially emotions potential buyers’ had for their children. He quoted from a 1961 advert: ‘How will they measure up against the kids next door?’ [4] This in spite of the fact that EB (and other encyclopedias, usually) is not written for children.

One can expect that the publisher of an encyclopedia praises his work in the preface. In the articles ‘Encyclopedia’ it is common to find at least a mention of the work one has in one’s hands. The last printed edition of the multi-volume Brockhaus-Enzyklopädie (2005/2006) uses the occasion for an indirect self-promotion.

There we read at the end of the article ‘Encyclopedia’ that ‘it must be assumed that the electronic encyclopedias will go on to establish themselves; next to them there will be a continuous interest in printed editions.’ The article also emphasizes that the high quality paper used for Brockhaus-Enzyklopädie will make the volumes endure for more than 400 years. [5]

I couldn’t help thinking of an old sketch of the German humorist Loriot, about an interview with a salesman of nuclear bomb shelters. To reuse one of the questions: ‘Can’t you imagine that even happy consumers after such a long time are no longer content with their purchase?’


[1] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, p. 163.

[2] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, pp. 157-159.

[3] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 269.

[4] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 320.

[5] Enzyklopädie. In: Brockhaus Enzyklopädie in 30 Bänden, 21st edition, vol. 8., pp. 174-180.

Not a…

In an episode of Blackadder, the protagonist’s stupid servant Baldrick uses the manuscript of Johnson’s dictionary to make a nice, warm fire. When the protagonist tries to rewrite the dictionary, Baldrick contributes: ‘Dog. Not a cat.’

In 1768- Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is written: WOMAN, the female of man. See HOMO.

Maybe we should have a milder view on Baldrick.

(See for the EB entry: Harvey Einbinder, The Myth of Britannica, London 1964, p. 33)

“Compendium of all available knowledge”

If you are interested in Wikipedia, you may know the motto of Jimmy Wales:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

I was always afraid that this phrase supports misunderstandings about Wikipedia. Not all human knowledge is suitable for Wikipedia, like the name of your pet. But now I found out that Jimmy’s phrase is absolutely nothing uncommon for an encyclopedia. Take Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example (15th ed., vol. 18, p. 258):

Today, most people think of an encyclopedia as a multivolume compendium of all available knowledge.

Or Brockhaus Enzyklopädie (19th ed., vol 6, p. 451):

In der Neuzeit wird der Versuch unternommen, die Gesamtheit menschlichen Wissens in einem neuen, dem gewandelten Weltbild entsprechenden Zusammenhang […] darzustellen. / (My translation:) In the Modern Age, one tried to present […] the total of human knowledge in a new context, according to the changed conception of the world.

So if Jimmy’s phrase is not mistakable, it is at least not so inventive. At the occasion of the 10th anniversary, maybe the Wikipedians want to find (collaboratively) a new,and shorter, slogan.