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Circle of Knowledge - The Fall & Rise of the Canadian Encyclopedia CD-ROM
by Matthew Church

We are, we hear almost daily, in mid-spin of a revolution. It is the information revolution. If you choose to believe some soothsayers, it will transform humanity into a better-informed and happier citizenry with all the tools of production, democracy, and personal fulfillment to hand. As we are only entering this new phase, whether you buy into the utopian analysis or not is a matter of faith. What we can all believe now is that computers are altering the way humans interact, how we conduct business, how we entertain ourselves, and how we learn.
It is the print industry that is most often cited as the next big loser in the digital revolution-the next manufacturing dinosaur to slide into extinction. Gigantic communications conglomerates now see the world in terms of selling content to "hard-wired consumers"; there's less and less call for the resource-intensive and costly process of applying ink to paper for a mass audience.
Book publishers have seen the writing on the screen and are hustling now to turn their valuable content into non-print commodities. Reference books, not surprisingly, were the first and still strongest in the market. In the past these projects cost millions and took years to yield first fruit. They then sat unproductive and aging, waiting for later printings and updates. The explosive growth in sales of cd-rom readers-few personal machines are sold without them any more-created the opportunity publishers needed to turn those diminishing assets into new sales. And with the new promise of online updates and (eventually) versions fully downloadable via the Internet, the future of encyclopedias is more fluid-and more commercially promising than ever before.
The Canadian Encyclopedia was first published to great fanfare by Hurtig Publishers in three volumes in 1985. It was the product of a long and somewhat troubled gestation, so it was greeted with some relief. A flashier four-volume set was published just three years later. These editions sold 250,000 between them, and were generally well-received by critics and well-used by Canadians. A must for a library of any size at all, it also enjoyed substantial individual sales, thanks to an aggressive and somewhat craven appeal to nationalism. That notwithstanding, it has been a welcome presence, and is a thing to be proud of.
The same cannot be said of the encyclopedia's first digital iterations. McClelland & Stewart, which acquired Hurtig Publishers in 1991, pushed out a multimedia edition two years later. Its limited multimedia component, uninspiring interface (the onscreen façade through which the user gains access to the information), and its reliance upon an inefficient and hard-to-use search function turned off most prospective purchasers. Sales were disappointing. Apparently in the hope of generating revenue from stagnating content, an unwieldy floppy-based "interim version" was released in time for Christmas 1994. Perhaps because it required the user to sacrifice precious storage space for what was again a dry and uninteresting reference work, sales were dismal.
Now M&S has taken another stab at creating a digital version of its encyclopedia. Indications are that this time they have got it right. One of the first cd-roms on the market that runs on both Windows and Macintosh platforms, The Canadian Encyclopedia Plus (TCE+) has a new and fast interface, more multimedia components, and a sophisticated new search engine. In addition, in what was clearly a marketing move, M&S has bundled in digital versions of the Gage Canadian Dictionary, the Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, and the Roget and Oxford thesauruses (the "Plus"). While this may make the package easier to sell, it has significantly altered the original notion of a Canadian encyclopedia...not necessarily for the better.

Encyclopedias and their makers have always been guided by the prevailing methods of organization and presentation. The first encyclopedias were long tracts more like philosophical treatises than repositories of easily accessible units of information. They were intended as courses of study that, once completed, provided the adherent with facts within a unified theory of the world. Thus Pliny the Elder, who helped establish this new kind of scientific codex and defined the content that would fill it for centuries, tried to create in his Natural History an Aristotelian enkyklia paideia (circle of knowledge) that would encompass all that was necessary to know.
The encyclopedia, then, was an expression of faith in a particular cosmology as much as it was a source of facts. If there was an ultimately knowable universe (with a little divine intervention), one work could contain all that was known. Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century scholastic, speculated that he could create what he called a brevis quaedam summa omnium, a specific brief summation of everything that exists. Easy access to little pieces of that information was of little import.
In the utopian ferment of eighteenth-century thought, the encyclopédistes Diderot and D'Alembert (among others) turned this notion around to serve a future-directed purpose, animated by a desire for change. But it was still based on the principle that, with a sufficiently cogent world-view, one could create a reference source that would encompass all that was necessary to know. Their idealism led them to believe that information and its redefinition were central to a reformulation of political reality. Though they opted for modernisms like alphabetical listings, they were deeply attentive to the revolutionary centre of their knowledge circle.
This vague notion that a good encyclopedia must contain all the information that belongs in it-and if it does, that it might have a good effect on society-lies at the heart of any work but perhaps none more than a national encyclopedia. In a sense, the circle of knowledge becomes a citadel protecting a culture, a familiar conceit to anyone who remembers Mel Hurtig's pitch in the early stages of The Canadian Encyclopedia. In addition, in an increasingly fractious world of competing interests and cosmologies, the task of the encyclopedist had become impossible. With a focus narrowed to the confines of a particular political construct, reference works become manageable again.
Of course there are problems with such an approach, for it is an attempt to impose borders on apolitical phenomena. In this way, an article on the ptarmigan must be included in The Canadian Encyclopedia but one on the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team likely won't be, though it would have more to do with the lives of the vast majority of Canadians. The encyclopedia tries to pull the world together, to make sense of it. But this may no longer work. For a bird lover, a hockey fan, a feminist, a Christian, or a Muslim, the world has different centres.
Perhaps this then as much as its desirability as a marketing premium explains the inclusion of The Columbia Encyclopedia. The consumer has a limited amount to spend on cd-rom reference works, and will want the most thorough source possible. By grafting on such a large and reasonably successful work as the Columbia, more information is made available for less and sales will rise.
But sadly, the inclusion of the American reference work diminishes the Canadian one. Because of a quirk in the design of the interface, it is actually quite difficult to discern whether one is getting the Canadian perspective without surveying the entire article from a critical vantage. Thus it is that if we direct the computer to search for references to the health-care crisis, it directs us to an article entitled "socialized medicine", among others. Displaying a distinctly American slant, this article holds forth on the decline of quality of care in the British system resulting from state-funded health care. To the uninitiated-a high school student preparing an essay, for example-the inappropriateness of the content is not obvious. The encyclopedic battlements surrounding our culture are breached.
Duplication of entries is another problem resulting from this arbitrary fusion of two reference works: one can read either an American or a Canadian description of the significance of the Plains of Abraham. Needless to say, the presence of two articles on a given subject leads not to a greater understanding but to confusion and disarray. If in the next version of the TCE+ (and with the economies of the technology we can expect an annual update), the designers and editors can provide a more readily apparent visual key as to the provenance of the article, then this rather serious shortcoming may be at least somewhat mitigated. In the meantime, users ought to consider using the "search filter" to remove the Columbia from the pool of information available to a query.
The last revolution in the encyclopedic interface (as it were) came with alphabetization in the late Middle Ages. Though search engines and audio and video entries may seem transformative to us, they are probably less radical than the move to alphabetize small units of information by title. To scholars and thinkers of the time who were interested in neat frames for the containing of all knowledge, the alphabet must have seemed an obtuse, fractured, and ultimately meaningless way of ordering material. Information had been broken off from the matrix of knowledge and was being presented in discrete, self-contained units. Centuries later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge took typical umbrage at the new Encyclopaedia Britannica's use of the alphabet as an ordering principle: "To call a huge unconnected miscellany of the omne scibile, in an arrangement determined by the accident of initial letters, an encyclopaedia, is the impudent ignorance of your Presbyterian compilers."
The use of computers for reference works obviates the need for the classification of information through the alphabet, or by any other means for that matter. Sandra Bornn, a designer at Mackerel Interactive Multimedia, creators of the TCE+'s new interface, allowed that she and her colleagues had omitted any alphabetized listing from their initial concept: "It simply wasn't needed." Conventional wisdom, in the person of an M&S executive, dictated that, no, such a listing was crucial to a user's enjoyment of the cd-rom. So it was included. It seems that Bornn's instincts were correct: the alphabetical listing of articles in a scrolling menu is irrelevant and actually confusing.
As to bringing order and providing access to a large pool of information, the TCE+ does the job well. It provides the user with a conventional Boolean search-find "x and/or/not y"-that does a reasonable job (though a search for Ben Johnson, for example, suggests the item on Canadian Opera, as well as more apt entries). In addition, a natural-language "Smartsearch" function allows you to ask questions such as "Why do leaves turn colour in the fall?" A list of articles that might possibly contain the answer is then provided.
Once you are into the articles, there is an abundance of hotlinks (highlighted words or phrases which when clicked on take you to the article cited-instant cross-referencing) which will help you get a firm and broad grasp on the issues you are exploring. For neophytes, the temptation is to immediately click on a hotlink to see where it leads. The result is a fragmented and incomplete survey that, were you to wait until you had read the article in its entirety before shooting off in other directions, is less than you might otherwise expect. Fortunately, the interface designers built in a backtrack button that will pull you back to where you were before wandering off. And you can save a copy of any article to a "research folder" where you can compile a set of relevant documents that can be highlighted and annotated.
Access to and use of the defining component of any multimedia reference work-the audio, video, and animation-is simple and quite neat. The quality is for the most part high and the content occasionally useful. This praise notwithstanding, the multimedia material is somewhat secondary-as in almost any other "multipedia" (with the exception of those covering music, film, and other media) the add-ons eventually lose their novelty. While some are informative or illustrative, they seem oddly irrelevant. Multimedia may very often be the selling point, but it is the capacity to search every article for the appearance of a particular word, or to employ hotlinks from one context to another, that makes digital encyclopedias so exciting.
Through the use of its thorough subject index, one can generally contextualize the information one is receiving, but not without a little initiative and lot of practice. When I asked the editor, James Marsh, about the way knowledge is organized, he suggested that it was irrelevant. "It is more important that we have skills so we know how to look for the information we need, and when we find it that we know what we are looking at, and that we can trust it." While we can be reasonably confident that the material is trustworthy (with the inevitable caveat that this work contains or will soon contain some errors), the opaqueness of some of the screen and layout logic requires a good deal of time before the functions become transparent and interaction with it second nature.
Finally, a word about serendipity. For those of us who simply like to browse through reference works, cd-rom versions have so far left us in the cold. There is as yet no satisfactory mechanism that mimics a book falling open to a particular spread into which the reader may dip at will. Indeed, one of the great frustrations with multipedias is one's inability to actually see adjacent articles. While the designers of The Canadian Encyclopedia Plus have provided two different contexts (one alphabetical, the other subject-based) within which we may proceed in a linear way, neither affords the user a satisfyingly fanciful chance to skip hither and thither as whim dictates. One assumes that a "randomizer" which would spin the user off to another article would be an easy task. I have seen an access engine used on a digital I Ching that mimics that encyclopedia's ancient and unique "interface". Its inclusion here would be an opportunity for a pleasant pastime, and might offer the user a glimpse of what encyclopedias have to offer.

A freelance writer and editor in Toronto, Matthew Church (mchurch@astral.magic.ca) was recently an editorial consultant on the federal government's Industry Canada's Information Highway Advisory Council Final Report.


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