Many histories can be written of the reference work. There is the chronicle of technical and institutional forces intertwined in the production of the book: of conquest, co-option, trade wars, empire and religion. Also, there's the drama of clashing conservative and progressive impulses: the expectation for the humble reference work to fixate the social order, or to shatter it and form a new realization of social possibility. There are tales of great and eccentric personalities: the perseverance of men who dedicate their lives to the tasks of organizing everything known about the universe. Finally, there is the story of collaboration: of people standing on the shoulders of giants and of plagiarism.
Of course, these do not exhaust the potential perspectives with which to view the development of the reference work but these are the ones presented in this essay. My goal is to consider the history of reference works, specifically the dictionary and encyclopedia, from these perspectives in order to contextualize a more focused history and ethnography of the Wikipedia, an on-line collaborative encyclopedia; I hope to encounter salient issues of the past that might be relevant to the present day.
My approach is like that of Moon and Sproull's (2000) three-fold view in The Essence of Distributed Work: the Case of the Linux Kernel. In turn, their approach was inspired by Allison's (1971) book, Essence of Decision, on the Cuban missile crisis. In both texts history is rendered three times, each from a different explanatory perspective in order to capture a complex social event. Beyond the trivial fact that I'm presenting four perspectives, my approach differs from these two works in two ways. First, I don't follow the convention of their titles, I don't believe I will be able to distill the "essence of" reference works. Second, these perspectives are not mine, as chosen for the greatest analytical potency; instead, they are different themes I have encountered in the history of the reference work. I am not working from primary sources, the results of that work appear elsewhere, but secondary sources. This approach might be called a "double hermeneutic" (Giddens 1984; Deetz 1996) in that I am reading how others have themselves read history and finding salience both in the historical events, as well as their presentation.
A common historical perspective of the book, and the reference work in particular, is to detail the relationship between the technologies of storing information beyond the brain (McArthur 1986) and the social institutions with which they are co-extensive. Such analyses are generally concerned with the two questions of the definition of technology and its determinacy in relation to social institutions.
In brief, the first question is expressed in debates about what things might be considered technology. Few would argue against modern-day computers or even printing presses, but what of papyrus, clay, abstract letter forms, alphabets, or even language itself? From some scholars we might infer that the human body itself is a reference technology, consider McArthur's (1986) highlighting of the etymologies of the terms "digit," something we count with even when not using our hands, and "index finger," the finger that guides our eyes across the printed page, as early tools of knowledge. Whereas McLuhan (1995) provocatively claims the inverse: better information technologies become extensions of the human form itself.
The second question has a long history itself with many social disciplines attempting to explain the causal relationship between technical artifacts and social movement and institutions. In the following, extraordinarily brief, history of the book itself I present a handful of examples from the ancient, medieval, and early modern period in Western history.
Any history of the book is likely to begin with the importance of Sumerian cuneiform written in clay tablets. While a somewhat awkward, or at least heavy, media relative to contemporary standards, it was seminal and used in rather clever ways: when information in the clay tablets began to overwhelm their users, Sumerian scribes covered their cuneiform texts with an additional thin layer of clay for annotations, which could be easily consulted and broken off so as to reveal the original text when necessary (Stockwell 2001:93). Yet, the Sumerian system was to have a lasting impact even after the Sumerians had been conquered by the less literate Acadians, under which Sumerian became the specialized language of authority, scribes, and priests (McArthur 1986:24).
The contemporary form of the book, written on rather than etched in, emerged, in part, from the rivalry of two great cities of the ancient world, as reflected in the aspirations of the libraries at Alexandria and Pergamon. In an effort to achieve parity with Alexandria, Eumenes II began amassing his own library, often pillaging texts or even creating forgeries. King Ptolemy Philadelphus of Alexandria thought he could put down this upstart by depriving the Pergamites of papyrus, made of the reed that grew on the rivers of Egypt (McArthur 1986:26). Yet, the Pergamites already conducted an extensive trade in wool, and deprived of papyrus they found a purpose for the sheep's skin as well: parchment (charta pergamene). Ironically, Plutarch wrote that in the end the whole collection at Pergamon was given as a gift from Marc Anthony to Cleopatra and housed at Alexandria. Unfortunately, this massive library was subsequently destroyed in a conflagration. Yet, the practice of writing on parchment persisted.
The advantages of parchment came to be recognized by the Romans who folded them and place them within boards (codices), which permitted users to flip from page to page – rather than unroll a papyrus scroll. Parchment was inexpensive and adopted by the early Christians, which set the tone for the next millennia.
Metal type appears in 1430, replacing the troublesome wood type that had been in use for the past century (McArthur 1986:71). And while the parchment adopted by the early Christians was on the wane, the institution of religion and the technology of print continue to be tightly coupled. While most people are familiar with the argument that the Gutenberg press contributed to the Protestant Reformation by enabling Luther to distribute copies of his 95 Theses throughout Europe, the printing press was already being employed by the Catholic Church to print the indulgences to which Luther so vehemently objected. Both Gutenberg and William Paxton, the first English printer, earned income from printing these exemptions from sin (Stockwell 2001:46). (At this point movable ceramic and wood types had been used to print Buddhist scriptures for centuries in China (Stockwell 2001:24).)
In A Social History of Knowledge Peter Burke (2000) directly addresses how new institutions arose in response to advances in knowledge by claiming that marginal individuals innovate and institutions propagate (p. 51). In the 16th and 17th centuries intelligentsia arose from the universities associated with the church to become educated parish priests or the secretaries of rulers. Yet, the church did not look favorably upon the Renaissance thinkers and the humanists operated outside of the university forming their own Academies in order to reconsider the classics (p. 35). And, just as their predecessors had once been ignored, the proponents of the scientific revolution, differing with both medieval and classical perspectives, were given short shrift by the universities and academies and formed their own scientific societies in the 17th-century (p. 36). Finally, during the Enlightenment, many new 18th-century research oriented institutions of modern natural philosophy, modern history, and modern philosophy were created and often conducted in the vernacular (p. 44).
Though fleeting, this history does raise interesting questions on the relationship between the technology of the book and social institutions. Users of even the most primitive technologies, such as clay tablets, were able to make clever use of them. And once a technological form, be it the language of the conquered Sumerians or the parchment of embargoed Pergamites, becomes embedded in an institutional frame (e.g., the Sumerian language or the parchment of embargoed Pergamites), it can aquire a certain momentum -- until something at the margins displaces it.
One of the lesser known, though more interesting, projects of H. G. Wells (1936) was his advocacy for a world encyclopedia, or as he liked to call it a "World Brain." Given the advances of microfilm technology, and the insecurity, violence, and confusion in world affairs after the first world war and anticipating another, Wells hoped that a world encyclopedia could "solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all that scattered and ineffective wealth [of information] into something like a common understanding" (p. 920). This was not simply an educational resource, but an institution of "adjustment and adjudication; a clearinghouse of misunderstandings" (p. 921). Wells’ advocacy for a world encyclopedia, much like Bush’s (1945) essay on the memex, is founded on a progressive hope in tools of knowledge and reminds one of today’s Wikipedia and Web. However, these systems arrived much later than the visionaries expected, and it is questionable whether Wells or Bush would be happy with the resulting social influence each has had.
The reference work - perhaps naively thought to be a simple and perhaps even boring text - has been at the center of the many complex clashes between conservative and progressive social advocates. Because of visionaries like Wells and Bush one might mistakenly infer that the institutions of science, education, and reference works are necessarily progressive. While this is the trend, it need not be so, as evidenced by history. What one is more likely to find in history are opposing forces, cycles of predominance, and unexpected results. Each of these institutions can secure existing beliefs rather than challenge them. For example, McArthur (1986:67) noted the Greeks wanted to know everything so as to think better, the Romans to act better, and the Christians so as to glorify God and redeem their sins. As Zedler wrote in his Universal-Lexicon: "the purpose of the study of science... is nothing more nor less than to combat atheism, and to prove the divine nature of things" (McArthur 1986:155).
For most of the pre-modern period, natural philosophers presumed their task was to confirm the knowledge of God's two great works: the Bible, and the "book of nature." Consequently, it is not surprising to find a view such as Zedler's nor to anticipate that as our understanding of the natural world increased so would discrepancies between the Bible and that natural world. (This story of conflict is well known because it makes for good drama: McArthur (1986) entitles one of his chapters "faith versus reason" and Stockwell (2001) in A History of Information Storage and Retrievaldevotes an interesting though seemingly off-topic chapter on "the uses and abuses of the Bible".) An example of this discrepancy is that while Webster, the American author and Bible translator, is widely respected for his definitions, his etymologies were a failure because of their dependence on literal interpretations of the Bible (Morton 1994:42). Webster's, not uncommon, belief at the time was that all language descended from the Hebrew of Adam and Eve; this was corrected, in part, by Britain's exposure to Hindu languages in India (McArthur 1986).
The conservative impulse was also present in the intended purpose of some dictionaries. When the French Academy commenced compiling a national dictionary, it was with the sense that their language had reached its perfection and should therefore be authoritatively "fixed." However, the utilitarian purpose for a dictionary could not be denied: Furetie're's competing dictionary contained words not approved of by the scholars of the academy and sold well in the black market (Headrick 2000:145). English speakers, such as Jonathan Swift, perhaps envious of their continental cousins, argued their language was no less deserving of standardization. However, Britain never marshaled a national effort and the task of compiling English dictionaries instead fell to commercial lexicographers such as Samuel Johnson (Winchester 1998:91). While Johnson was originally "flattered himself" with "the prospect of fixing our language" (Post 2001; McArthur 1986), he soon realized that this task was an "expectation which neither reason nor experience could justify" since language was "the work of man, a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived" (Post 2001:24).
Reference works are products of their time, perhaps this is no more apparent than in their treatment of women. For example, Caudry wrote that his 1604 dictionary was "for the benefit & help of Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilful persons, Whereby they may work easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons or elsewhere, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves" (Winchester 1998:84). In early encyclopedias, the treatment of women was not much different, meriting only a short mention as the lesser half of man. However, with the publication of the first edition of Britannica one encounters the possibility of change as well as a conservative reaction: the article on midwifery was so direct that many saw it as a public scandal (McArthur 1986:107). Stockwell (2001:111) comments that there was actually little else of note in the first Britannica of 1768 except for this 40 page article, which King George III ordered destroyed, pages and plates.
Yet, while this Britannica example shows how efforts at usefulness may conflict with the dominant norms and authorities - at least with respect to childbirth - it is the French Encyclope'die within which the radically progressive impulse is famously located. Diderot believed a good encyclopedia ought to have "the character of changing the general way of thinking" (Stockwell 2001:90). In fact, along with the French nobility and Pope Clement XIII, the editor of the Britannica's third edition, now situated in the English conservative reaction to the French Revolution, considered the Encyclope'die to be a "pestiferous work": "It has been accused, and justly accused, of having disseminated, far and wide, the seeds of anarchy and atheism" (p. 90).
There was one such accusation, though few would consider it just, against a man that cost him his life. Voltaire wrote of Chevalier de La Barre’s arrest in 1766 and eventual beheading (after his tongue and right hand were removed) for scoffing at the doctrine of virgin birth and failing remove his hat before a procession of dignitaries. While, he was originally accused – by a rejected suitor of his Aunt - for involvement in the desecration of a crucifix at Pont-Neuf (Dickens 2004), a judge found the influence of Diderot's encyclopedia on the young man’s attitude towards authority (Stockwell 2001:84) to be sufficient for conviction. (The small mercy granted to him was that he was not burned alive, but beheaded first, and then burned, along with his copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, another damning piece of evidence.)
The editors and publishers themselves also felt the hand of royal censure. Even before the first volume was printed Diderot was imprisoned at Vincennes for over three months. D'Alembert, his coeditor, disassociated himself from the project altogether. Le Breton, the printer, had many restrictions placed upon his efforts, 6,000 of his volumes of a reprint were seized and taken to the Bastille, and he was briefly jailed as well. In 1866, subscribers were ordered to turn in their copy so they might be destroyed (Stockwell 2001:90). (Diderot attempted to circumvent the censors by placing provocative comments in unrelated, but cross-referenced, entries in separate volumes where the authorities would not think to look (p. 91)).
What did those in power fear? Stockwell (2001) clearly labels the focus on craftsmanship as a progressive force.
By taking craftsmanship seriously for the first time, Diderot helped set in motion the downfall of the royal family and the rigid class system. Suddenly, in the pages of the Encyclope'die, every person became the equal of every other, because they had access to the technical and social know-how other technicians as well as the scholars of the educated classes. No longer could the few claim the sole right of ruling the nation when Diderot had given a clear picture of how power was maintained and had exploded the religious and social myths that kept people in a condition of servitude. (p. 87).
Yet Koepp (2002) renders the import quite differently:
At the same time there's a specific desire on the part of the dominant, elite culture to control language and discourse: in our case, the editors of the Encyclope'die expropriating and transforming work techniques. By exposing and altering the secrets of the crafts, the editor sought to undermine the authority of specialized artisans. Their formally unique talents, knowledge, and abilities became dispensable once the techniques were available in print to "all", that is, to anyone who could understand the discursive order of the Encyclope'die. (p. 138)
The difference between these two authors shows that the degree to which reference works are viewed as conservative/progressive are not only dependent on their historical context, but in the readings historians make of that history in the present: Stockwell sees the Encyclope'die as a democratizing force whereas Koepp sees it as a form of expropriation. (It could very well have been both.)
And in the past, even historical subjects themselves often have complex relations to the objects of study, a sentiment reflected in an amusing anecdote. During a dinner party of King Louis XV the guests fell into disagreement about the composition of gunpowder. The King's mistress pointed out that she knew nothing of how her silk stockings were made. "The duc de la Vallie’re then said that he regretted the order by the king banning the Encyclope'die, which would undoubtedly contain all this information. The King replied that, although he had not actually seen the Encyclope'die, he had been assured it was most dangerous. He agreed, however, to examine it and see for himself." (Stockwell 2001:90). After some difficulty, servants found a copy which contained descriptions for gunpowder, rouge, and silk stockings. Even though its usefulness was proven, the King maintained his ban.
Lest we think that the conservative/progressive tension is a matter reserved for the past, a fascinating tale is told of the publication of a dictionary in 1961. In Morton's (1994) The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics, he writes of the contested reception of the dictionary.
Perhaps the primary reason for the controversy associated with this dictionary was that it appeared at a time of social tumult. Progressives were seeking to shake up that which conservatives held dear. Yet, those working on the Third were not a band of revolutionaries. If one were to compare its publication to the publication of the Britannica and Encyclope'die during the Enlightenment, it would be closer to that of the Britannica, a straightforward effort to improve human knowledge and therefore the human condition, without intentionally challenging social norms and authorities, even if, on the issue of childbirth, it happened nonetheless.
For example, Gove made a number of editorial decisions so as to improve the dictionary. And while lexicographers might professionally differ with some of his choices, such as the difficult pronunciation guide or the sometimes awkward technique of writing the definition as a single sentence, it was the social context which largely defined the tenor of the controversy.
Gove followed in the belief of nearly every successful lexicographer before him that a lexicographer is "a historian, not a critic" (Trench qtd in Morton 1994:7). Webster himself thought that the lexicographer had no concern "with the use of words in writing" (Morton 1994:205). So, in order to make room for the vastly improved definitions and etymologies (benefiting from 6 million citation files, four times that of the 1934 edition) Gove had to economize on space. Therefore, he eliminated biographical, geographical, and other encyclopedic material. He reduced the usage of usage labels (e.g. slang) in favor of illustrative examples from which the readers could perceive the appropriate word sense (p. 136). Furthermore, he included more contemporary citation sources and in an effort to eliminate "editorial lauds and sneers" he pushed his editors to be objective: the "wood duck" would no longer be considered handsome. (The editor in charge of wines strenuously objected to this policy.)
Critics were alarmed at the social change occurring around them and attacked Webster's Third as a proxy. Follet, in an article in the Washington Post entitled "Sabotage in Springfield," described the Third as "a scandal and disaster" (Morton 1994:187). Other critics warn the readers away from the Third, or at least to keep the previous Second edition close at hand. In fact, an exhortation I encountered as a schoolboy of "ain't ain't a word" was a prominent topic of national debate after the Third's publication.
Yet, as Morton details, most of these criticisms were simply ignorant. The word "ain't" appeared in the hollowed Second edition and was labeled as substandard in the Third (p. 158)! Also, the Bible and Shakespeare continued to be dominant sources for citations. Interestingly, critics thought the Second looked to the past, but only because they were looking back. Just like the Third, when the Second was published its editors thought it to be current with contemporary usage and employing advances in etymology and lexicography.
The effect of the larger cultural context on its reception is further indicated by the British reviews which were respectful and generally positive with differences of judgment, such as the definition style, simply noted. Indeed, aside from such differences, the only cultural criticism that still seems sound was the progressive concern over the usage label "usually taken to be offensive" since it places the responsibility for offense on the victim of the statement, rather than its issuer.
Consequently, I hope I have, within this brief perspective, shown that it is necessary to explore the intentions of the actors, their context, the complex consequences of their actions, and the interpretations of those actions. The analyst, as well as the reflective reference work editor, might even come to recognize or adopt one of the stances ("worldviews") identified by McArthur (1986) for the purposes of addressing the conservative/progressive tension within their own work:
1) They can openly found their work on dogma.... This is the path of faith.
2) They can openly found their work on rationalism.... This is the path of reason and of secular humanism…
3) They can claim neutrality, and seek for "fairness".
4) They can seek some kind of compromise…
5) They can just get on with the compilation and not worry about cosmic underpinnings… (p. 55)
Such an analysis is apropos to the culture of contemporary on-line reference projects.
A popular perspective of the reference work is the biography of the men who created them. (Sadly, no women prominently appear in the historical record as of yet - though this is not surprising given the patronizing attitude towards women encountered in the previous section.) The range of personality types spans a spectrum of noble self-improvers to the criminally insane, though they all shared a commitment to their craft.
The 1st Century Roman admiral Pliny the Elder, who wrote the 37 volume Historia Naturalis, the "the oldest extent Western Encyclopedia" (Wells 1968:2), was a dedicated collector. A respected statesman and author, Pliny wrote his work of 20,000 facts with a genteel diligence. His nephew and protégé, Pliny the Younger (as cited in Jashemski 1999), wrote to a friend of his uncle’s work habits:
From the Feast of Vulcan (August 23rd) onwards, he began to work by lamplight, not with any idea of making a propitious start but to give himself more time for study, and would rise half-way through the night; in winter it would often be at midnight or an hour later, and two at the latest… On returning home [from work], he devoted any spare time to his work… in summer when he was not too busy he would often lie in the sun, and a book was read aloud while he made notes and extracts. He made extracts of everything he read, and always said that there was no book so bad that some good could not be got out of it… A book was read aloud during the meal and he took rapid notes. I remember that one of his friends told a reader to go back and repeat a word he had mispronounced. "Couldn't you understand him?" said my uncle. His friend admitted that he could. "Then why make him go back? Your interruption has lost us at least ten lines." To such lengths did he carry his passion for saving time.
Subsequent scholars extended the presumed benefit of learning to that of society generally. The famous 18th Century romanticist Samuel Coleridge concocted a scheme with friends for a commune in the Americas that he named Pantisocracy. Unfortunately, his plan for an encyclopedic project, the Metropolitana, was to prove equally unimplemented though his writing regarding its organization was to influence others.
Idealists were not at all uncommon in the roster of encyclopedists and lexicographers. Furnivall was a founding personality behind the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first conceived of in the 1850's; he was also known as an agnostic, vegetarian, and Socialist - and many thought him a fool. Furnivall befriended James Murray, who would become the chief editor of the OED, and introduced into the delegates of the Oxford University Press. (Winchester (1998) entitles his biographical chapter on Murray, who otherwise led an extraordinarily sound and respectable career, "The man who taught Latin to cattle" for his boyhood practice of naming and calling to the cattle of the family’s herd in Latin.) And, as already noted, H. G. Wells (1936) had great hopes for his encyclopedic "World Brain" in furthering world peace.
But perhaps the most well-known personality is also one of the most tragic. Simon Winchester's (1998)The Professor and the Madman is the story of the relationship between Murray and one of its most fecund contributors, Dr. William Minor. Winchester's history is actually a more accurate portrayal of a relationship brought to popular attention in 1915 by the American journalist Haden Church. In Church's rendition, Murray, the respected officer of one of Britain's greatest cultural institutions, traveled to the manor of the reclusive Dr. Minor. Upon introducing himself to the man behind the large desk, stating that it was a "pleasure to at long last make your acquaintance," and presuming he stood before Dr. Minor, he was informed, "I regret, kind sir, that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest-staying resident" (Winchester 1998:xi). (Murray knew of Minor’s condition before they met, though not from the start of Minor’s contributions.)
It is not clear what caused Minor's paranoid delusions, which eventually drove him to mistake and murder an innocent for the phantasms that tormented him in the night. Yet, Winchester argues that Minor's devotion to the project, Minor submitted 10,000 citation slips to the OED, was perhaps one of his few solaces: partially replacing his paranoid compulsions with a constructive one that gave Minor some sense of purpose and connection to others.
Regardless of whether these men were self-improvers or madmen, there lives were aptly characterized by Thomas McArthur (1986:93):
In this they epitomize an important element in the history and psychology of reference materials: the passionate individuals with the peculiar taste for the hard labor of sifting, citing, listing and defining. In such people the taxonomic urge verges on the excessive. Thus, the wife of the Elizabethan lexicographer Thomas Cooper grew to fear that too much compiling would kill her husband. To prevent this, she took and burned the entire manuscript upon which he was working. Somehow, Cooper absorbed the loss - and simply sat down and started all over again.
And many recognized that this passion would not bring them great rewards or fame. As, Samuel Johnson wrote in his preface to ADictionary of the English-language, "Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few" (Morton 1994:1).
The final perspective I offer is that of cooperation. This perspective is relevant to my own project because of the importance of cooperation in the development of the Wikipedia. A recent article by Daniel Pink (2005) in Wired magazine profiles a handful of contributors (speaking to the biographical), highlights a number of contentious issues (speaking to conservative and progressive) and begins by describing 3 periods of encyclopedic development : the One Smart Guy, the One Best Way, and the One for All (wiki) models.
The difference between the latter two models and the first captures the distinction one might draw between interacting with one's contemporaries in the present rather than building upon one's predecessors. However, it is important to note that compiling reference works has always been a social activity. These are not individual poems written on the back of a fallen leaf and burned in the fire. A hermit's encyclopedia would have little to build upon, and be of little use to others if written in complete isolation. Such a solitary image brings to mind Dr. Minor, the OED contributor mentioned earlier, but it is important to recall that Winchester (1998) argues that Minor’s prolific lexicographic efforts in an asylum were in fact one of the few ways in which he transcended his tortured delusions and took a place among society as a contributor, as recognized in the 1888 Preface of the first complete volume, A-B.
The distinction Pink draws in his models leads me to consider how one might perceive of collaboration with respect to time. In the following sections I distinguish between the gradual accumulation of knowledge over time and the production of knowledge by actual collaborators. I also note how the latter was influenced by the broadening scope of what could be known and the effects of commercialization on reference work publishing.
Stigmergy is a term coined by Pierre-Paul Grasse to describe how wasps and termites collectively build complex structures; as Karsai (2004:101) writes, it "describes the situation in which the product of previous work, rather than direct communication among builders, induces [and directs how] the wasps perform additional labor." This is also reminiscent of Newton’s seemingly generous sentiment of acknowledging the contributions of his predecessors, but this magnanimity is suspect to many scholars; for example, by Hawking (2002), who presently occupies Newton's chair at Cambridge. Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke had a long-standing disagreement, originally based in optics, which was disruptive to the Royal Society. Eventually, Newton was convinced by his peers to try to make amends, wherein he wrote a letter to Hooke that included the following statement, knowing full well of Hooke's insecurity about his short stature and hunched back: "If I have seen further [than you and Descartes] it is by standing upon ye shoulders of giants." (As cited in a 1676 letter from Newton to Hooke, by Merton (1993) who details a long history of this aphorism.)
So, even while reference work production remained an individual pursuit, any "One Smart Guy" was actually relying upon the work of predecessors. Many early editors of reference works saw themselves as compilers and abridgers, both useful functions. Richard Yeo, in Encyclopedic Visions, writes of the development of three seminal encyclopedias between 1700-1820, and of the discussion around such practices. Quoting Chambers, the author of Cyclopedia, he notes:
He admitted that his dictionary contained "little new, and of my own growth," but felt no embarrassment: the work was professedly "not the produce of one man's wit" but a collection from the world of learning: in "nobody that fell in my way has been spared, ancient nor modern, foreign nor domestic, Christian nor Jew, nor Heathean: philosophers, divines, mathematicians, critics, causists, grammarians, physicians, antiquaries, mechanics, have been all brought under contribution" (Yeo 2001:205).
What should we even call people like Chambers: an editor, author, or compiler? Whatever we call them – I opt for "editor" for simplicity’s sake – they tended to be liberal in borrowing from other works. As Chamber’s wrote in his Preface:
'Tis vain to pretend anything of property and things of this nature. To offer our thoughts to the public, and yet pretend a right reserved therein to one's self, if it be not absurd, yet it is sordid. These words we speak, nay, the breath we emit, is not more vague and common than our thoughts, when divulged in print. (qtd. in Yeo 2001:215).
In a practice not at all uncommon to early reference works, Chambers further expresses his personal views in the actual entry on ‘Plagiary,’ linking the practice to scientific contribution or a humble bumble bee:
Their [dictionary compilers'] Works are supposed, in great Measure, Assemblages of other Peoples; and what they take from others they do it a validly, and in the open Sun. In effect, their Quality gives them a Title to everything that need be for their purpose, where ever they find it; and if they rob, they don't do it in any otherwise, and as the Bee does, for the public Service. Their Occupation is not pillaging, but collecting the Contributions. (qtd. in Yeo 2001:216).
Yet, not all were so forthright as to defend their practices in the work itself, William Smellie, the compiler of the first Encyclopedia Britannica is said to have admitted over a drink "with paste pot and scissors I compose it" (McArthur 1986:107 citing Kogan) and in another account he confessed that he "made a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences with a pair of scissors, clipping out from various books a quantum sufficit of matter for the printer" (Yeo 2001:182 quoting Kerr).
Not surprisingly, the question of compilation and plagiarism goes back to Pliny the Elder himself, who attributed his work as a compilation of over 2000 sources (McArthur 1986:83). Stockwell (2001:19) argues that "the work of Gauis Julius Solinus of the third century draws so heavily (about 90%) on Pliny's Natural History, without acknowledgment, and on other works of the time that one hesitates to list them at all except for the fact that several medieval writers copied parts of it into their own encyclopedias." These practices and their moral ambiguities continued until recent history. For example, Johnson's publishers were surprised by Barley's sometimes thinly veiled plagiarism (Morton 1994:27). Webster and Worcester warned of alleged plagiarism (Morton 1994:46). Many articles of the Encyclope'die were lifted directly from Chambers, though Diderot claimed most had been reworked (Yeo 2001:126).
Ironically, whatever justifications editors gave for borrowing from other works – if they did even that – they also expressed concern with the infringement of their own work: applying for and prominently displaying the sovereign grants ("letters patents") that granted them a monopoly to publish the work. This practice continued even after the first copyright law, the Statute of Anne, was passed given ambiguities with respect to the statutes relationship to existing common law, grants, and the types of works involved. And one can understand why, the Cyclopedia was one of the most valuable literary works of its day (Yeo 2001:280).
Two key themes that might be identified in the shift of reference works from the hands of a single compiler to that of joint production are the change in the human relationship to knowledge, and the commercial opportunities of reference work publishing.
In The Social History of Knowledge Peter Burke makes an observation that at first seems contrary, though upon reflection becomes obvious: with the arrival of the printing press the encyclopedia became necessary because there were many more people reading many more books (Burke 2000:109); reference books were one way to keep abreast of the proliferation of other books. Questions of worldviews and taxonomies - a preoccupation of the Ancients that has not completely receded even today - began to appear irrelevant if not impossible. The explosion of disciplines and the breathtaking advances of the sciences and trades rendered efforts to perfectly organized knowledge in a perfect circle as moot. (The term encyclopedia derives from the Greek notion of a liberal arts and the "circle of knowledge," enkykloos paidei'a (McArthur 1986:40).) Alphabetization became the dominant method of organizing knowledge because the old categories could not keep up (Burke 2000:110); movable type aided the editing and revision of texts (Stockwell 2001:47) and typesetting was further aided by the organization of information according to alphabetization.
The scholastic relationship to knowledge was to organize and learn everything there was to know - Aquinas was revered more for his memory than his skills of analysis (Yeo 2001:79); as Hughes de Saint Victor wrote, "learn everything; later you will see that nothing is superfluous" (McArthur 1986:52). The new notion was to learn what you can in your specialty and consult an encyclopedia otherwise. (The interesting history of mnemonic techniques such as St. Teresa's "Interior Castle" - much like the present day Memory Palace technique - is addressed by Foster Stockwell's (2001) A History of Information Storage and Retrieval.) Diderot and d'Alembert thought that no man could comprehend the whole of the Encyclopedie.
Even the specialist, they claimed, had difficulty reaching a profound grasp of one science. "What man, then, could be so brash and so ignorance and understanding as to undertake single-handedly to treat all the sciences and all the arts?" (Yeo 2001:79 quoting fn1. D'Alembert, Preliminary Discourse, 112).
Rather than cherishing every parchment, scholars began to complain of the glut of information. As hinted at by my comments on fixation, the concern to control this printed mass was as much an effort to stop the deluge as a conservative impulse. In 1680, this led Leibniz (the famous philosopher, mathematician and librarian with his own encyclopedic plans) to propose that in order to bridle the "horrible mass of books" the King should organize a canonical set of texts based on the recommendations of the best experts in each profession. Also, he proposed standards for stopping bad books from being published and announcing new proposals (Yeo 2001:94). The flow could be particularly bothersome to knowledge workers themselves. Philip Gove, editor of the Webster's Third, instituted a policy anticipating the turning off of e-mail at workplaces by requiring that questions be written on pink slips in order to avoid interruptions (Morton 1994:72). (Interestingly, the asynchronous character of e-mail, like the pink slips, was one of their original benefits. However, the constant stream of asynchronous events and the seeming human preference, once acclimated, for "easy" multi-tasking is leading to concerns about focus and productivity.) The famous MIT professor Norbert Wiener is said to have declared "keep the monkeys away from the typewriters" (Stockwell 2001:97).
The point of this digression on the capacity of human memory is to note that if, as Diderot and D’Alembert argued, that no single individual could comprehend all knowledge, neither could an individual - no matter how consumed - compile all knowledge.
An early exemplar of the 18th century collaborative production was that of the Franciscan friar Vincenzo Marco Coronelli, a famous map maker. He was inspired by the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder and began to publish Biblioteca Universale Sacro-Profana in 1701. Indicative of the stigmergatic collaborative tendency he took biographical data from More'ri, as corrected by Boyle, and geographical data from Baudrand, as corrected by Sanson. He was also one of the first to alphabetize. And most interestingly:
[H]e found a way to get others to do the writing for him. As minister-general of the Franciscan order, he ordered Franciscan monasteries to subscribe to his encyclopedia. He also insisted that friars contribute entries and that they educate the lower ranks of the order, so they could contribute too. He also solicited information and articles from many well-placed individuals who he knew throughout Europe, asking all contributors to subscribe to earlier volumes and subscribers to contribute to future ones. According to Fuchs, "for the more people there were to contribute, the more information there was to be shared; and the more diverse this group of contributors and subscribers was, the more opportunities that were for people to learn from each other, and to expand each other's horizons." (Headrick 2000:154, citing Fuchs, Vincenzo Coronelli and The Organization of Knowledge, 181).
In particular, two aspects of Coronelli's scheme that are worth considering further are the role of subscription and serialization. The sale of books on subscription plans provided the useful feature of gauging the market for demand before embarking on the risky endeavor of printing (Yeo 2001: 49). This was most applicable to the multivolume reference works as their production could be costly and, more importantly, a lengthy process. Furthermore, serialization permitted the correction of errors in subsequent editions of previous serials (Yeo 2001:49). Additionally, subscription became one of the first forms of salesmanship: commercial practices which would soon become integral to the publication of reference works. (Stockwell (2001:131) cites a salesman commenting that "the Britannica is sold with shoe leather." Pears’ Cyclopedia contained soap advertisements (p. 125), and The World Book Encyclopedia, which outsold more than the next top three encyclopedias, came to be owned by the purveyors of another door-to-door item: the vacuum cleaner (p. 136).)
Yeo (2001:47) notes that the list of subscribers to a book often included prominent names removed from the normal alphabetical order so as to highlight prestigious persons, for their own benefit as well as that of the publications. Yeo argues that subscriptions "encouraged the sense of corporate involvement in a large publication" (p. 52):
Hence, when combined, the practices of subscription and serialization made readers of these works akin to corporate authors: it was their support, at the start, that ensured the appearance of the work; it was their reception of it, as it appeared in parts, that might adjust the content or presentation. In a sense the list of subscribers was a corporate identity as well as a mode of feedback to the compiler. (p. 53).
Yet, the method of purchasing these works was not the only broadening of participation in their production. As editors recognized the expanse in their own non-specialized understanding, they turned to experts to author particular articles. Just as subscribing to a work might further one's prestige, so did a contribution. By the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica it was now associated with prestigious Cambridge University, had 1500 contributors, of which 166 were fellows of the Royal Society, 56 were presidents and secretaries of learned societies, and 47 were on the staff of the British Museum (Stockwell 2001:115). In fact much prestige could come to the editors themselves. For his work on the Cyclopedia, Chambers was inducted into the Royal Society (p. 55) and Murray was knighted in 1908.
However, to claim that reputation motivated contributions is not to state that all participants were simply seeking fame. In fact, Thomas Young, the natural philosopher who worked on the wave theory of light while also deciphering the Rosetta Stone by 1840, agreed to contribute to the Britannica, but required anonymity in any subject "not immediately medical"; Young did not want scientific controversies to weaken the confidence the public had in his capacities as a physician (Yeo 2001:265).
With the benefits of collaborative production also came conflicts and challenges which are with us even today. One of the novel features of the production of the OED, and which permitted men like Dr. Minor to contribute, was that it solicited the public for citations of word usage. (An interesting side project of Furnivall was to first publish ancient manuscripts as books which could then be distributed to readers for culling.) This led to interesting asymmetries in the type of work done. Philip Gove, editor of Webster's third, preferred paid readers because the OED volunteers tended to collect too many citations for unusual words and too few of ordinary words (Morton 1994:95). For example, Murray had 50 quotes for abusion but only five for abuse (Winchester 1998:137). To be fair, as Lynda Mugglestone (2000:7) notes, Murray admitted this was perhaps the fault of the instructions given to readers. Yet, this tendency seemingly persists in contemporary volunteer projects: in open source development many comment that the sexy work, such as developing new features, often receives more attention than the mundane work of bug fixes and documentation.
Additionally, an editor of a collaborative effort will have the frustrations of any such work, often likened to "herding cats." These issues are well demonstrated in the compilation of the Britannica’s 1816 Supplement; Macvey Napier, the editor, sought to include only original and novel contributions from external experts: "This led to some tense exchanges as Napier had to settle a number of issues, such as the appropriate level of difficulty, especially in mathematical topics such as the calculus, the inclusion of unpublished experimental measurements by the contributor, or the refusal to do a useful summary of a field in a reasonable space" (Yeo 2001:263).
An implication that I hope one can draw from these four perspectives is that the past is not so different. Clearly, forms of governance, social norms, and technologies have changed over two millennia. And these changes, no doubt, are profound. Even so, one can find evidence within the Wikipedia of Wells' or Diderot's aspirations, Pliny's dedication, controversy such as that stemming from Britannica's childbirth article, and even Leibniz's exasperation with information glut and a call for authoritative direction. Many applaud the availability of an extensive, free, and open information resource. Those obsessed with editing the Wikipedia are encouraged to take a "Wikiholiday." Recently, an enormous debate erupted over the inclusion a still of a nude Kate Winslet in the article for the movie Titanic. And a long-standing, and sometimes heated, debate is how to repel the waves of vandals, guide the newcomers, and retain experts in the rough-and-tumble effort of neutrally representing what we know of the world.
Burke, P. (2000). A social history of knowledge: from Gutenberg to Diderot. Polity Press, Cambridge.
Dickens, D. (2004). The Tale of Two Cities: A community reading project: notes on issue 1: glossary part 2 of 5. Stanford, Standford.
[ http://dickens.stanford.edu/archive/tale/issue1_gloss2.html ]
Hawking, S. (2002). On the shoulders of giants: The great works of physics and astronomy. Running Press, Philadelphia.
Headrick, D. (2000). When information came of age. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Retrieved on February 04, 2005 from [ http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/HistoryWorld/European/?ci=0195153731&view=usa ]
Jashemski, W. F. (1999). Pliny the Younger's Letters 3.5.7-17 (to Baebius Macer). In A Pompeian herbal. Retrieved on March 18, 2005 from [ http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/exjaspom.html ]
Karsai, I. (2004). Self-organization and the origin of complexity. In Matt Young, T. E., editor, Why Intelligent Design Fails, chapter 7. Rutgers University press, New Brunswick.
Koepp, C. J. (2002). Making money: artisans and entrepreneurs and Diderot's Encyclope'die. In Daniel Brewer, J. C. H., editor, Using the Encyclopédie. Voltaire Foundation, Oxford.
McArthur, T. (1986). Worlds of reference: lexicography, learning, and language from the clay tablet to the computer. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Merton, R. K. (1993). On the shoulders of giants. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Morton, H. C. (1994). The story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's controversial dictionary and its critics. Cambridge University Press, USA.
Mugglestone, L. (2000). Lexicography and the OED: pioneers in the untrodden forest. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Post, D. (2001). "The Free Use of our Faculties": Jefferson, Cyberspace,
and the language of social life.
Stockwell, F. (2001). A history of information storage and retrieval. Macfarlane, Jefferson, North Carolina.
Wells, H. (1936). The Idea of a World Encyclopedia. Nature, 138:917-24.
Wells, J. M. (1968). The circle of knowledge: An exhibition to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Newberry Library, Chicago.
Winchester, S. (1998). The professor and the madman. HarperCollins, New York.
Yeo, R. R. (2001). Encyclopedic Visions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.