David M. Brown's Blog

December 6, 2013

We can still have a Propaedia

Filed under: Media and journalism,Society and culture,Technology — davidmbrowndotcom @ 2:39 am

The lament of this New Republic article on the demise (in 2012) of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, to the extent not merely nostaligic, seems to be based on the difficulty of updating links if one wants a Propaedia-style outline of the whole.

But the great paper encyclopedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order. Even if they mostly organized their articles alphabetically, they also sought ways to link the material together thematically—all of it. In 1974, for instance, the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica added to the work a one-volume “Propaedia,” which sought to provide a detailed outline of human knowledge, while referencing the appropriate articles of the encyclopedia itself. Large headings such as “Life,” “Society,” and “Religion” were subdivided into forty-odd “divisions” and then further into hundreds of individual “sections.”…

In theory, there is no reason a digital encyclopedia could not have ambitions similar to these. A digital “Propaedia” could of course provide hyperlinks to individual Encyclopedia articles, which would work far more efficiently than printed cross-references. But in practice, to have an encyclopedia even try to provide a systematic overview of knowledge requires a fixed, stable body of articles—a discrete edition.

But the job of providing an overarching perspective on human knowledge per se—of which a a classifying directory of encyclopedia volumes is only one example—is just as tough and just as doable as it ever was.

If Britannica keeps a record of all extant articles on line, it should be possible to produce a synthesizing overview of the encylopedia that, if not exhaustive or kept perfectly updated, is nonetheless as much or as little useful as an Adlerian overview of one of the print sets. The task would have to be properly formulated and delimited. Doesn’t sound easy; what was accomplished synthesizing the print sets was doubtless not easy. Whether there’s a need for such a volume that goes beyond the benefit of feeling the warm feeling that “Ah! Such a volume exists!” is another question.

Will the next Will Durant be stymied for lack of acquaintance with an outline of a print encyclopedia to consult as he confirms or supplements background knowledge on a subject more easily than ever?

Durant’s 11 bulky volumes of the Story of Civilization don’t say everything about everything about what men have learned and accomplished over the centuries; and no doubt many of his details must be corrected or updated. (It’s not hard; read a section of Durant, then search the Internet, Google Books, the online Britannica to find some results of later scholarship.)

The first volume of Durant’s Story was published in the 1930s, the last in the 1970s. It can hardly be up-to-the-minute in its use of secondary sources. But anyone who glimpses the achievement of The Story of Civilization knows that its wisdom and its value do not rest on being perfectly up-to-date and perfectly exhaustive. In addition to the talents and drive of the Durants’, what made their detailed and readable synthesis possible was their philosophic bent. They could see and they were eager to see so many of the connections among the details of mankind’s story, both within each volume and across volumes. Also, they must have been pretty darn good at organizing their notes.

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