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User:Philip J. Rayment/Thoughts on encyclopaedias

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This is an essay by Philip J. Rayment.
Please comment only on the talk page.

On what an encyclopædia "should" be.

Philip J. Rayment

Note: This essay was written before the Research namespace was created.

There is no one correct format or style for an encyclopædia. Before Wikipedia, and possibly before any on-line encyclopædia, traditional print encyclopædias were experimenting with electronic versions, such as on CD ROMs (I have a copy of the 1999 World Book encyclopædia on CD ROM, for example). This in itself meant a change from print versions, even apart from obvious things like searches and hyperlinks. The 2000 edition of World Book, for example, included panoramic pictures which could be panned by the reader.

Then Wikipedia (or perhaps more technically its predecessor) arrived, and we had encyclopædias which were edited by large numbers of users. But more than that, those users may have known relatively little about the topics. So there was a requirement to include references, in order that readers could be (more) confident that the articles were accurate, and not simply made up. My World Book has no references. Some articles do have a list of "additional resources" (i.e. books for further reading), but many do not even have that. In other words, the encyclopædia was intended to be the authoritative source, not simply a rehash of other sources.

Along with Wikipedia's requirement for references came a requirement for "no original research". In a sense, this is now turning the concept of an encyclopædia on its head: Instead of being the authority that others quoted, the encyclopædia was now something that quoted other authorities. Traditional encyclopædias had original research (along with research done independently), whereas Wikipedia now banned original research. This sometimes came close to being absurd, such as saying that an editor could not count the number of Australian capital cities and include that in an article, he had to find someone else saying how many there were and quote them. This example is made up, and possibly a bit more extreme than real cases, but not much.

I'm not suggesting that any of these changes were bad; merely that there is no one fixed way to produce an encyclopædia.

Other changes were pretty obviously for the better, though. Encyclopædias were no longer limited in size by the number of pages and volumes which could reasonably be sold. There was effectively now no limit to the number of topics covered, and much more relaxed limits on how big each article could be.

Also, articles could be kept completely up to date. A disaster which happened an hour ago could be found written up in detail on Wikipedia right now. Print encyclopædias were generally limited to yearly updates, and those "updates" were not updated versions of the original articles, but new articles in a separate volume, so you now had multiple places to look.

This responsiveness to current events allowed Wikipedia to include what is effectively a news service on its main page. The encyclopædia is no longer just an encyclopædia, but a newspaper as well.

I mention all these things as background to saying that A Storehouse of Knowledge has also always been intended to be something a bit different to a traditional encyclopædia, but at the same time, a bit different to Wikipedia. Apart from allowing essays and (in the future) some form of debates, it allows original research. I hasten to add that this doesn't give people open slather to write whatever they like. That original research may still be challenged by others, and there must be good reason for the content of such articles. This might be because the research has been done and the conclusions drawn are supported by that research. Or, in some cases, it may be because the contributor is an authority on the topic in question. That's partly why the {{member}} template for user pages has a field for expertise; if you are indeed an expert in a particular topic, then that should carry some weight. But again, that doesn't mean that their opinions are sacrosanct. Others can challenge that they really are the experts they claim to be, as well as challenge their conclusions. But it does mean that we will not be treating everyone as though they know nothing except what they can repeat from others.

Taking into account (a) the original research, and (b) the effectively-unlimited capacity, perhaps it's appropriate to include in the encyclopædia what are effectively "research notes". These "research notes" have at least two purposes; they support the original research (so that others can check that there is good reason for the conclusions reached in the original research), and they facilitate further research by others.

An example of this is the page Belgrave Heights Convention/List of conventions. I originally created that page as much as anything because I thought that a list of the conventions may be of interest to (some)others. But I didn't appreciate how big the list would be. Nevertheless, I kept it partly as "research notes". Once the list is reasonably complete, for example, I might be able to study the list and find out useful details for the main article which have not been documented elsewhere, such as (hypothetically) finding that in the 1940s there was a shift of emphasis towards missions, by seeing that they started having more mission meetings. I could of course keep such notes off-line, and just put the conclusions in the article. But why not include them in the encyclopædia? Having it there allows, as already mentioned, others to see the evidence for the conclusions drawn in the article, and further allows others to do their own research without starting from scratch. It's similar to a scientist submitting a paper to a journal, but also making the raw data behind the paper available online. Perhaps, however, instead of having the research notes in the main article space, there should be a "research" namespace?

Granted, it's not a traditional thing for an encyclopædia to do, but as I've shown, a lot of the traditional things have changed anyway, so what's wrong with this idea?

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