Van Doren on The New Encyclopedia

In articles about Wikipedia, former Britannica editor Charles Van Doren is frequently cited as saying “because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too.” For example, he is quoted in Daniel Pink’s Wired article. And Stacy Schiff’s widely read New Yorker article quotes Jimmy Wales citing Van Doren to claim that the new encyclopedia “should stop being safe – in politics, and philosophy, and science.” As I note in my work, an irony of Wikipedia being compared to the staid authoritativeness of Britannica is this progressive essay by Van Doren, and the fact that he was a product of an unsavory new media phenomenon of his own time: the television game show scandal.

The whole Van Doren (1962) essay is available online, but not publicly so. His essay is actually lauding the progressivism of the L’Encyclopedie francaise and argues that all encyclopedias should focus on teaching over informing, art over reference, human over scientific-literary, on serving the “curious average man” and on reformism over the intellectual and status quo. A line that I am fond of is his claim that “If an encyclopedia hopes to be respectable in the year 2000 it must appear daring in the year 1963” (p. 24). If we accept that Wikipedia is daring in its way, by this math, any respectability achieved before 2045 is a bonus.

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