The Encyclopedia in the Digital Age

Significant: expressive, suggestive, with unstated or secret sense, inviting attention; noteworthy, of considerable amount or effect or importance”
– Oxford English Dictionary

One of the words that recurs in the making of reference works is “significance.” While the word “encyclopedia” either means or implies “all the knowledge in the world,” and one might call a Canadian encyclopedia “everything you wanted to know about Canada,” of course this was never literally possible. So when you make a reference work you have to make choices and hope that in the final product at least you represent “all the knowledge,” or represent the totality of the given subject, be it baseball or Canada.

When we originally compiled The Canadian Encyclopedia in the 1980s the editors were forced to make hard choices, in particular because the volumes had to be a certain length to make the publication profitable. As editor in chief it was probably my most important task to balance the needs for coverage and length. The senior editors responsible for the major subject areas—biography, social sciences, humanities, arts, and science—each could have (and two did) bring me outlines prepared by their consultants that could have easily taken up the entire encyclopedia. Furthermore, there were subjects such as sports, geographic places or pop culture that I had to advocate personally because they were of no interest to our consultants (of whom we had 250 from all across Canada). How do you judge that one subject is significant and should be included at a certain length, while others are either less significant and should be shorter, or insignificant and should be left out?

In cutting unhappy editors’ lists to size and balancing them with the other lists I had to make difficult decisions. I was not unprepared for this as I had edited some 200 books in Canadian Studies and written a few myself. I studied other encyclopedias back to Diderot. Once an article had been assigned a certain length it was left to the authors to decide what in their topic, be it Margaret Atwood or pingoes, was significant and what had to be left out.

We did a pretty good job according to the some 200 reviews we received. Every reviewer felt good about himself or herself because inevitable they could point out things that should have been included before going on to say that coverage was pretty good. Some readers actually got out their rulers and measured the picas devoted to certain articles on places or certain biographies and compared them to less worthy treatments. Many of these perceived errors in judgment found their way into angry letters, others into newspaper articles, and still others into classroom projects to criticize the editor.

A relative of the Saskatchewan politician Hazen Argue wrote me to complain that we had included a biography of that lout of the family and gave me potted biographies of a dozen other members of the family far more “significant.” I had been told by many consultants that I should not include any biography of someone who is alive, as only historical perspective could tell if they are significant. This would have left the encyclopedia devoid of articles on the very people defining the culture in our time, from Wayne Gretzky to Pierre Trudeau.

Missing of course in this editorial process is the reader and his or her interests, whatever they might be. After the first edition I got thousands of letters with suggestions and took them very seriously and included many new topics as a result in the second edition. The greatest interest was always in people and places. In the book versions, I still felt it necessary to balance as well as cover. I always saw The Canadian Encyclopedia as a portrait of Canada—the most complete ever compiled—and it seemed obvious to me that a biography of Sir John A. Macdonald must be longer than that for Sir John Abbott.

Has all this changed in the digital, postmodern age? As pop culture overtakes our sense of meaning entirely, does the concept of significance have any relevance? Is Justin Bieber’s haircut as significant as Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations? One thing that is redefining importance is Google. Our encyclopedia is most useful if people can find what they are looking for. We are in the process of evaluating the meaning of this as we move forward. Thankfully, we are helping many Canadians as some 500,000 unique visitors access The Canadian Encyclopedia in our best months.

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