Anthony Wilson-Smith is president and CEO of the non-profit organization Historica Canada and a former editor-in-chief of Maclean’s Magazine.
The meeting room at Norway House, hard by the European Parliament in Brussels, is modern, brightly lit, with a convenient patio for breaks. As diplomatic buildings go, it’s welcoming. It is also an unlikely place for a Canadian to find himself talking about encyclopedias.
Yet, there I was last month, sharing space, operating practices and business cards with almost 30 colleagues from 18 mostly European countries and regions, along with several observers. The occasion was the first conference of national encyclopedias. Historica Canada, the non-profit organization I serve as president, was invited because we produce The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Some people may – and do – ask why anyone needs an encyclopedia in an era in which, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, there has never been more information on more things available to more people, often free of charge. But so much information on the internet is of uncertain provenance, the content often unreliable and the distinction between fact and opinion so blurred in many cases as to be almost impossible to discern. The history of encyclopedias dates back more than 2,000 years – the first was written by a nephew of the philosopher Plato. They bring with them a reputation for accuracy, rigour in research and a studied commitment to neutrality that flies in the face of many modern media practices. That gives them a power and legitimacy “that is needed more than ever at this point in time,” observed Dace Melbarde, a speaker at the conference who is vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education.
Similar sentiments and supporting evidence can be found in a report by the European Parliament at the end of last year titled “Europe’s online encyclopedias: Equal access to knowledge of general interest?” It is a comprehensive, almost wildly depressing analysis of how information is distributed, distorted and denied in various ways within Europe and around the world. As the report’s author, researcher Naja Bentzen, told us: “We live in an era of truth decay.” Or, as the report itself dryly concludes: “There is concern over the potential impact of a ‘post-truth’ era (in which objective facts and evidence matter less than emotions).”
One of the potential antidotes to those problems, the report observes, is the encyclopedia. And so, with that as the backdrop to our meeting, we came together, invited by members of the 112-year-old Great Norwegian Encyclopedia, which organized the event. The countries involved ranged from large – France, Italy, Germany and the Chicago-based Encyclopedia Britannica – to the smaller likes of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the republic of Georgia and Catalonia (Spain). While most, like The Canadian Encyclopedia, are online-only, some offer both online and print versions, and a few are still available only in print. Many (including ours) are free, but not all: An annual subscription to the online-only Encyclopedia Britannica – which dates back to 1768 – will set you back US$75 a year. Until several months ago, when our invitation arrived unannounced, we had no idea many of our counterparts existed. As to the actual participants, they ranged in age from mid-20s (the editors of the nascent Montenegro encyclopedia) to 80ish (the editor of Austria’s version, a fellow who as a young academic worked for Tommy Douglas on the planning of Medicare in Canada in the 1960s).
One early and happy discovery was that there are an awful lot of people out there – in North America, Europe and beyond – who are keen, trusting and regular users of encyclopedias. The Canadian Encyclopedia, for example, has 14 million unique users annually who take advantage of the more than 20,000 continually updated articles we offer. In a country with a population of 35.2 million, we receive more than 31 million page views each year.
We’re very proud of that – the audience has more than doubled since we conducted a full redesign in 2013. But we’re not even close to the highest numbers in terms of usage and content. Britannica has 65 million visitors a month worldwide and offers more than 100,000 articles online (including about 200 of ours through a share arrangement with them).
Over all, we share some encouraging trends with many of our counterparts. Our most devoted audience members are high-school and university students. We boast an expert editorial team – many of whom have several academic degrees. We are meticulous in our research and fact-checking and offer four different forms of academic citation. Within our country, The Canadian Encyclopedia is often one of the few offerings recognized for use in high schools and some universities (beyond those materials already on their reading lists).
Encyclopedias that, like us, offer content online for free have all grown in recent years. Those encyclopedias that flourish invariably survived the transition from print to the online world through a combination of high-quality content coupled with prescient planning; an innovative business model; a generous sponsor; government assistance; or just plain luck. Norway’s encyclopedia, one of the most impressive, almost collapsed a decade ago. “We were really, really on our last legs,” recalled Erik Bolstad, the youthful, energetic editor-in-chief who has presided over its recovery. It is now financed by a foundation largely made up of the country’s universities. Latvia launched an entirely new encyclopedia at the end of last year. Our encyclopedia, created by book publisher Mel Hurtig in 1985, was sold to philanthropist and publisher Avie Bennett, the former owner of McClelland & Stewart, about two decades ago. He subsequently donated it to Historica Canada. It is now subsidized by grants from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Museum of History.
That encouraging news aside, not all is always well in our shared world. Among others, Estonia’s encyclopedia, launched in 2010 with some fanfare, appears to no longer be updating its articles. An encyclopedia in Spain appeared to have “gone dark,” in the words of organizers, just a few weeks before the conference, when the office phone was disconnected.
Another challenge is language. The use of English worldwide is so prevalent that it is easy to ignore how many people do not speak it – by some estimates, for example, about half of Europe’s 740 million residents. (Here at home, The Canadian Encyclopedia publishes in both this country’s official languages.) That is a particular challenge in smaller countries where their language is not widely spoken outside their own borders, such as Finland and Albania. Finding basic, reliable, updated data can be a major problem in those places. That, in turn, means that any form of media purporting to offer such information can quickly gain credibility – whether accurate or not.
One advantage of modern encyclopedias is also a challenge for some. In the internet era, updates are instantaneous – but that can have dangerous consequences. Predictably, there was a lot of discussion at the conference about Wikipedia (which was not a participant). Personally, I consider Wikipedia a positive force. It provides reasonably accurate information on almost any subject you can think of – but the fact that any user can “edit” a piece at any time creates unavoidable potential for mischief, disinformation and inaccuracy.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge for encyclopedias is that, reputation aside, our medium is as vulnerable as others to deliberate abuse. Truth is increasingly a moving target, its contents defined by whatever mood best suits the people paying for it. Some countries are unabashed in their view that their encyclopedias, like other media, should be vehicles for nation-building, establishing national consensus and myth-making. China had an astounding 20,000 people working on a national encyclopedia as of two years ago. Russia published the most recent edition of its Great Russian Encyclopedia in 2017. At the time, its editor, Sergei Kravets, called the GRE a tool to stabilize Russian minds amid the post-truth era. He said: “We regard our encyclopedia as the territory of truth and objective assessment.”
Then there are offerings that transcend national boundaries and offer propaganda dressed up as fact. One of those is metapedia.org, a favourite of Europe’s far-right, white-supremacist movement and available in, at last count, 18 languages. It looks and reads much like Wikipedia in format – until you analyze the content more closely. It describes itself as promoting a “European” viewpoint, which in this instance means engaging in Holocaust denial, supporting “Nordic” or white peoples and occasional praise of Nazi Germany.
Back at the conference, we were strongly in agreement on some issues, such as our commitment to the principle of regarding accuracy within our offerings as essential. But answers to the question of defining what constitutes “accuracy” were, it must be said, more nuanced. If, for example, you are two editors from two countries that have been at war with each other in relatively recent history, is it possible to agree on the causes and villains of such conflicts? Is it even, for that matter, possible to have that discussion calmly? Consider, for example, that this includes not only countries engaged in the Second World War but also those countries annexed or occupied by the former Soviet Union in the war’s aftermath. As was evident at times in the conference, sometimes the best way to deal with a contentious issue really is to avoid talking about it. Several times, private discussions of that nature during breaks or at dinner had to be cut off when they started to become nasty.
That said, the overall tone of the conference was warm, marked more by a shared mission than by differences. We agreed to meet again – next year in Zagreb, Croatia – but to keep our association informal, partly because that makes it easier to skip over our differences. The next discussion to come – via e-mail – will doubtless centre on whether the existing group should be expanded – and if so, who else should attend. Should China be invited? Some said yes, but others noted that China’s government blocks information sources from outside the country that discuss its internal issues (as does Turkey). The same divisions were evident in considering Russia and some encyclopedias within. That is not surprising: It is still fewer than three decades since countries such as Georgia and Lithuania – both participants – were part of the old Soviet Union, whether they wanted to be or not.
So as we left the conference and scattered off in various directions, we had some new friends and also some fresh reminders of the importance of context. For one, it’s worth remembering that the existence of a debate over what constitutes “fact” and “truth” is at least as old as the encyclopedia. Plato, even as his nephew was creating the first encyclopedia, wrote at length on how to discern between what is subjective and what is objective. “A good decision,” he wrote, “is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” In other words, context. And, he wrote elsewhere – in what seems like an alarmingly accurate description of the internet: “The untrained mind keeps up a running commentary, labelling everything, judging everything.” For those of us in the world of encyclopedias, the challenge is to make ourselves heard in the middle of that din – and to make what we have to say worth hearing.
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