An encyclopedia (or encyclopaedia) is a book of knowledge. The word is Greek for “in the circle of learning”: it brings together all of mankind’s general knowledge of the world into one circle, one place. The first real encyclopedia was Pliny’s Natural History.
An encyclopedia is made up of articles. Each article covers one subject — China, Napoleon, music, insects, eighteenth century science and so on. It gives the most important facts and ideas in the space allowed.
The purpose of the encyclopedia is not to tell you everything. To the contrary, its purpose is to save you time, space and money. So it tells you only the most important things. Pliny, for example, took the facts he found in 2000 books and put them in the 37 books of his Natural History.
An encyclopedia can take different forms. It may all be between two covers in one volume – a desk encyclopedia. It may have many volumes or it may even be on the Web. There is no telling what form it may take a century from now.
Right now in the English-speaking world the two most important encyclopedias are the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Wikipedia.
The Britannica is very serious and very trustworthy but online it is not free and not easy to use. It is a good example of how shovelware does not work. But before the Web came along, nothing was better.
The Wikipedia is the opposite: it is on the Web – it was born there – it is very easy to use (when its computers are not overworked), but it is not entirely trustworthy and not always serious. It is a good example of how not having a real editor does not work. But nothing on the Web is better.
The encyclopedia and the Web are a match made in heaven. The Web has three things an encyclopedia needs that print cannot give it:
- Search engines make finding an article faster.
- Links make going to a related article faster.
- It is easy to keep content current, which means what you read is not ten years old.
The Web makes everything about an encyclopedia faster. That makes it easier to use and means the content can be better.
But there is more: an online encyclopedia can be far larger than one in print. The Wikipedia is already far too large for anyone to print the whole thing. This is in part because it is easier to use, so it can be larger, and in part because the Web is a much cheaper medium than print.
But wait, we said the purpose of an encyclopedia was to save us time, space and money. Like with Pliny boiling down all those books into his Natural History. What about that? Yes, that is just it: a web encyclopedia done right will let us go just as deep into any subject as we wish.