Why Encyclopedias Matter

James Grossman, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Chicago, was a featured speaker at The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia project’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join the discussion by adding your comments below.

James Grossman, Newberry Library, and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Chicago was the featured luncheon speaker on the opening day of the workshop. Grossman’s first point was to define the goals of an encyclopedia: to collect, systematize and transmit knowledge to generations to come so that the work of preceding generations is not lost. He argued that an encyclopedia is much different from a traditional work of nonfiction in that it is a collection of many different narratives from many contributors as opposed to a single narrative from one author. An encyclopedia stresses synthesis vs. simple detail. One of the key points to always remember, according to Grossman, is that a city encyclopedia can’t stop at a municipal boundary. Within its pages are established links among neighborhood ethnic groups and across neighborhoods and suburban municipalities.

A critical editorial decision is determining who is most qualified to provide the desired narratives for each entry in the volume. For instance, according to Grossman, if a Native American historian is asked to write an entry on Native American religion, the narrative would be quite different than if a professor of religious studies undertook the same assignment. By its very nature an encyclopedia presents information in a very fragmented format and it is critical to carefully evaluate the interdependence and interconnectedness of the information so that it is most informative to the reader. When presenting the entries the editors must judiciously decide when information needs to be “lumped” in its presentation and when it is more important to “split” information apart from similar material.
Grossman provided two cautionary tales which he and his co-editors learned through trial and error. First, The Encyclopedia of Chicago editorial staff initially determined that no separate entries would be made for distinct neighborhood or ethnic groups. They quickly discovered that this was not a good idea as they found that people sought the encyclopedia precisely so they could see themselves in the volume and they wanted to “find” their home (neighborhood) and “self” (ethnic group to which they belonged). Prospective customers won’t buy a book if they can’t find themselves or their neighborhoods in it. The second lesson which was learned pertained to fundraising. The Chicago project set an initial goal of $50,000 from some prospective donors. This proved to be highly ambitious and it is now felt that raising the necessary capital would have been easier if the threshold had been $25,000.

The lumping, splitting, and categorization of entries is another challenging task. Grossman stated that after much review a decision was made that in Chicago’s volume ethnic groups would be divided by their nation of origin. Thus, there is no entry for “Arab” but rather one would find Egyptian, Iranian, Jordanian, and so on. Religion is another challenging topic. The Chicago team decided to use broad terms such a “Protestant” rather than separate terms such as Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian. Every post-secondary college is listed separately in The Encyclopedia of Chicago. However, lumping is used for entries related to primary, intermediate, and secondary schools.

In a large metropolitan area like Chicago there are thousands of businesses. It is a difficult decision to determine which ones should be included. A decision was finally reached to include those firms which are nationally significant, have a very large local payroll, employ a significant labor force, generate very large revenue, or were important to the historical development of Chicago.
Grossman ended his remarks with two recommendations: First, it is critically important to always remember that “an encyclopedia can not gather all knowledge under the heavens.” Second, the establishment of focus groups of teachers and librarians is recommended so that the editors can find out what information is currently being sought by the target audience of potential users of the encyclopedia.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy