Archive for the ‘A Philadelphia Encyclopedia?’ category

Forethought vs. Afterthought

March 20, 2008

Recently, The New York Times, once a bastion of paper publishing, joined the paper vs. online encyclopedia smackdown. Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias, wrote reporter Noam Cohen.

The print encyclopedia – like that set of The Encyclopedia Brittanica taking up space on your bookshelves – is on its way out. EB sales peaked nearly two decades ago, before Microsoft’s first computer-based encyclopedia, Encarta, showed up. Today, sales are just 10% of what they once were. The only folks now buying encyclopedias by the truckload are schools and libraries.

The market makes sense. Why purchase 32 volumes instantly out of date when you can go online and find numerous encyclopedias, lot of current and valuable information, for free? It’s a principle bigger than the Encyclopedia of Life, bigger than Wikipedia. And its an idea older than the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has been online since way back in 1995. Cities all over the world are similarly channeling their encyclopedic urges. The latest may be the city of Melbourne, Australia, which is in the process of creating an online version of their own encyclopedia.

We at the Sixth Square wish them all luck. And we wish ourselves luck, too. Its only a matter of time before encyclopedists in the City of Brotherly Love embrace the internet as something more than an afterthought.

The Encyclopedia Lives!

March 11, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Life is up and running. And the Sixth Square strongly encourages you to check it out.

There are more than 300,000 pages to choose from, with information on what seems like millions of species. But the EOL isn’t close to done – it’ll take up to ten years to catalogue the planet’s 1.8 billion species.

How user-friendly is EOL? It’s definitely not, as its founders hope, as easy to use as Wikipedia. The Sixth Square finds EOL a bit too clinical. But for sheer volume of scholarly information available, EOL can’t be beat. It provides reference links and information for each scholarly journal the species appears in, and you can find numerous high-resolution images of each species.

The “completed pages” (about 25 as of this writing) are what the site eventually hopes to attain for every species: extensive and detailed information written in a format that anyone, from schoolchildren to scholars can understand. Click on one of these pages (like this one, on the peregrine falcon), and you’ll find everything from habitat descriptions to a page of interesting facts about the species.

Still finding it too hard to read? Stop by the home page and tell them what you think. The EOL invites users to participate in an online survey.

An Encyclopedic Big Bang

February 28, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Life went live on February 26, which was a good thing – until it crashed under the weight of its own success.  More than 11 million hits in the first six hours, and they kept on coming.

What’s all the fuss? This ambitious project is the brainchild of scientist E. O. Wilson.  He presented the idea at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference in Monterey winning the annual contest, whose prize is $100,000, a wish to change the world, and the support of every attendee of the conference in making that dream a reality. Wilson’s wish: an online encyclopedia of all the biological life on Earth.

Only eleven months later, that wish has come true. The EOL is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Wiki-technology (the same technology utilized by the Wikipedia site) allows viewers to modify and add content, thus making each page a compilation of the expertise of as many people as possible. Contributors to the project (in the current 30,000 pages) include scientists from Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institute, the Sloan Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation and graphics design from Razorfish, Adobe, Microsoft, and Wikimedia.

There is still much left to do – and, by the very nature of the project, there always will be. Consolidating all the known information of the 1.8 billion species on Earth is unprecedented, and it is expected to take ten years to gather approach anything like completeness. 

What does this mean for a Philadelphia Encyclopedia?  That information projects are possible thanks to the web.  That the book form is important for some kinds of publications, but definitely not others.  That we’d better think long and hard before we begin. 

But not too long.

The Great Depression Encyclopedia Gallop

November 30, 2007

In our exploration of Philadelphia encyclopediana (or is it the other way around?) we make the case for our own when, in fact, we already have one. Or some of one.

Joseph Jackson (no, not the shoeless one) compiled an Encyclopedia Of Philadelphia just as the Great Depression began to draw its blinds on such ambitious efforts. The National Historical Association of Harrisburg issued this four-volume set in the early 1930s.  Today, copies are found in the reference sections of libraries and are still available through used book sources.

The first installment, published in 1931, covers (mostly) everything from the city’s “Abbatoir” to the lost neighborhood of “Bonnafon.” Jackson One is replete with illustrations, charts, maps, and photographs, and gets the series off to a meaty start in 310 pages. Jackson Two, similar in size and published later the same year, covers “Boker, George H.” to “Evangeline’s Grave.”

Remembering our alphabet, Jackson seems to have gotten ahead of himself putting the first installment to bed when he did.  By those rules, Boker, the long-forgotten diplomat and writer (described as the “total contrast and equal counterweight to [Walt] Whitman”) would come in as the final entry in volume one.

But under pressure, mistakes are made. And we can imagine Jackson grew distracted as pressure mounted to complete the project as the Great Depression settled in. At Jackson’s pace though A, B C, D and E, he doubtless expected the entire project to total something like fifteen volumes.  But this alphabetical saunter turned to an editorial gallop as Jackson forced his way to the finish line in only two more volumes. Jackson Three covered “Evans” though “Old Drury” in 1932.  Jackson Four makes its way from “Old” to “Zoological” in 1933.  By that abbreviated point, Jackson’s Encyclopedia pretty much ground to a halt and began its fade from popular memory.

Dobson’s (Encyclopedic) Choice

November 20, 2007

Dobson Encyclopedia, Image courtesy of the Library Company of PhiladelphiaHere, on the Sixth Square, we’ve been discussing the need for a Philadelphia encyclopedia before New York City has two.

There’s an even deeper point of pride here. America’s first encyclopedia was issued in Philadelphia, back in 1790. Who was responsible for this? That would be Thomas Dobson, a wily, transplanted Scot.

The cards seemed to be stacked against Dobson. Americans had a lot on their minds right after the American Revolution. With an unstable economy, Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital with 40,000 residents, more resembled a ghost town as yellow fever plagued the city’s progress.

No one in this newly minted nation had taken on such a massive publishing project. American printers and engravers were in short supply. In an English-speaking world dominated by the British printing industry, American books tended to be printed on inexpensive paper. Only rarely were they embellished or bound finely. Americans were not accustomed to home-grown extravagance.

Going against the odds, Dobson devoted ten years to this enormous work. True, this encyclopedia’s eighteen volumes and three supplements, with more than 16,600 pages and nearly 600 engraved copper plates, is based on (plagiarized, in today’s parlance) the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Well, not entirely. Dobson added and augmented pertinent information about America.)

Still, the project was Herculean. According to Robert Arner in Dobson’s Encyclopedia: The Publisher, Text and Publication of America’s First Britannica (1991), Dobson’s offered his work at one-third the cost of British classic.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The Encyclopedia Race

November 14, 2007

Gary Nash gave us six reasons why to produce an encyclopedia for Philadelphia.  Reason number three: several models of urban encyclopedias lay before us in Chicago, Cleveland and New York.

As Nash pointed out in his talk at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania last month, the 1,104-page Encyclopedia of Chicago is a marvel to behold.  It has no less than 1,400 entries.  Its 56 thematic maps explore topics including ethnicity, transportation, religious diversity and recreation; its 386 thumbnail maps illustrate neighborhood and suburban municipalities.  This tome, which cost $1.5 million to produce, offers 400 photographs and a biographical dictionary covering some 2,000 individuals. More than 45,000 copies sold in the first three years. Edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, this joint effort of the Chicago Historical Society and the Newberry Library, the Encyclopedia of Chicago, was published in 2004.  The online version – which we’ll explore in a future post – appeared one year later.

In 1987, Indiana University Press published the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, compiled and co-edited by David D. Van Tassell and John J. Grabowski.  Initially created and envisioned as a historical resource tool, this book also provided residents a timely and much-needed source of pride.  Coinciding with Cleveland’s bicentennial, the publishers subsequently released a second print edition in 1996.  Two years later, this became the first urban dictionary to go online.  The web version is continually updated.

Few books issued by Yale University Press have sold better than the The Encyclopedia of New York City.  This 1,392-page doorstop, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson and produced in conjunction with the New-York Historical Society, also stands as a critical favorite.  “No one with even a passing interest in New York will be able to live without it,” wrote William Grimes in the New York Book Review.  A second edition, with 1,000 new entries, charts, maps, and tables, is expected in 2008.

If Philadelphia doesn’t soon make its move, the Big Apple will have two editions before the Big Scrapple has one out of the blocks.

Nash’s Six Reasons

November 7, 2007

As mentioned previously, when Gary Nash spoke about the state of history writing at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on October 23rd, he urged the gathered room full of historians, curators, editors, publishers, and cultural leaders to consider a new project – an encyclopedia for Philadelphia.  Here are his six reasons why:

Why should Philadelphia, a city of so many firsts, be the last among the major cities to create such an Encyclopedia about Philadelphia? The critical moment is upon us for a popular and engaging printed and online project that would draw the kind of praise bestowed on the encyclopedias produced by other great cities. Here are six reasons why:

One. Philadelphia is ready. There’s a history-hungry population of culturally sophisticated in-town and suburban come-to-town professionals, as well as ordinary people eager to know of their part in the city’s history.

Two. Such an encyclopedia can be readily done–and done handsomely. The encyclopedia is already half-written simply because so much Philadelphia history has been recorded in recent decades.

Three. Several models for an urban encyclopedia lay before us. Twenty years ago, a yearning for Cleveland pride as the city was trying to recover as a victim of rust-belt syndrome led to the publication of an encyclopedia for that city. Now, even more sophisticated models are now available, most notably New York and Chicago.

Four. It’s a good cultural, civic and business decision. If Philadelphia can raise $37 million in 45 days to keep Eakins’s The Gross Clinic from finding a new home in Arkansas, isn’t there enough Philadelphia pride left to raise a fraction of that amount for an encyclopedia that would reach countless thousands of residents, teachers, students, scholars, and visitors? The Encyclopedia of New York City, published twelve years ago, has sold more than 80,000 copies to date–one of Yale University Press’s top-five best sellers in its century-long history.

Five. Planning, writing, editorial and design talent is ready to ride to the sound of guns. This project is no chore, but an exciting and important challenge to create a valuable community asset in print and on line. The Philadelphia Encyclopedia would start as a true project of the 21st century.

Six.  Scores of folks throughout the community (and beyond) are already excited about the prospect of a Philadelphia Encyclopedia. And the conversation and planning continues here, at The Sixth Square.

Our project could—indeed should—include the voices of many people: librarians, museum curators, business leaders, politicians, professionals, community activists, churches, voluntary associations, urban planners, architects, and of course historians to discuss what they would like to have included in such an encyclopedia. Some might call this outreach. I call it in-gathering—connecting people for the common good.

The stars are almost all aligned. It’s time to move forward.