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Encyclopedic Projects

by Lars Aronsson, 11 Dec 1998
status: Preliminary

Newspapers report on things that have changed. The readers are supposed to know the state of the world as of yesterday, and the paper provides an update. Encyclopedias, on the other hand, contain static background information on almost anything, things that have been the same for millions of years. If you save all articles from all newspapers that are relevant to you, over a very long time, and organize them in a clever way, will you then eventually end up with an encyclopedia, a single source of knowledge? Any such project would of course be doomed from the start, but that has not stopped some people from trying. The common compromise is to narrow your defintion of what is relevant. There are encyclopedias or dicitionaries that only cover biographic entries, those that only deal with language and spelling, etc. But still, any encyclopedia tends to be very time-consuming to compile, yet quickly becomes obsolete. Often more so than the compiler imagines at the outset of his project.

The ideal encyclopedia would answer any question, and always be up-to-date. Second best would be a snapshot of the world of knowledge at any point in time. In reality, the more questions an encyclopedia sets out to answer, the longer it will take to compile, and the more obsolete will the first part be before the work is completed. The worst examples are encyclopedic projects that have run for more than one hundred years without updating the information published at the start. If that information was static knowledge, simple facts that would not change, this would not be a problem. But most encyclopedic works contain an alphabetic sequence of articles which follows the history of the project, a consequence of the paper book being a linear medium.

Project Runeberg provides some information and pointers to information on encyclopedias from the Nordic countries on our thematic entries for Reference and Biography and Genealogy.

Figure 1, below, illustrates a timeline of the publication projects behind some such works. The printing years of the first and last volumes of each work have been connected with a line. Project Runeberg (1992-1998) has been included for comparison.

diagram
Figure 1. Encyclopedic Project Timeline

More data is needed to make this diagram more interesting.


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