*For the purposes of this blog post, I’m omitting mention of encyclopedia companion websites, wikipedia and similar media-based wikia websites*
Last week, two of my classmates expounded on Cassell and Hiremath’s guide to using encyclopedias as found in Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: An Introduction (2006). In the interest of accessing my ultimate thesis as expediantly as possible, I’ll simply convey the inner dialogue that I had throughout there (very astute) presentation. They made a point to emphasize the limitations of a print encyclopedia (as a go-to authoritative multi-discipline information compendium) by highlighting the reality that information is in a state of flux, wherein research, findings, theories and facts are consitently being ammended or challenge–(I mean, my parent’s edition of Collier’s Encyclopedia is a little behind on the whole Pluto debacle for one thing). In that respect, print encyclopedias are inherently ineffective as resources for broad references for facts and can become exponentially more ineffective as time goes on.
What I’m interested in is how we can still draw validity from these printed compendiums and avoid completely throwing them to the waste-side. According to one of the resident librarian classmates, subscriptions to digital encyclopedias can be quite pricey for a library and they must be renewed on a yearly basis. This can tie up monetary resources for the library’s other endeavors. Conversely, for libraries with less expendable funds the print encyclopedia provides the same function (though with transient accuracy), and only needs to be purchased as often as the company (like Encyclopedia Brittanica) publishes a new edition. The information-literate encyclopedia owners, librarians and/or users are aware of the temporal and physical limitations of the encyclopedia. The fact that the text is fixed in form bereaves the information of any ability to evolve and compensate for the lag between the time the volume is produced and presented to the public and the time that more current facts/relevant developments surface.
But, can we draw meaning at all from the limitations of the print encyclopedia? Surely an encylcopedic product of medieval China (random example) would still be valuable in a library collection. The only difference would be the types of questions and information needs that such a resource would be suited to remedy. If I were a patron and I wanted to accurately understand the mechanics of planetary motion in order to determine the next time I would be able to see a certain constellation from my house (and plan an awesome star-gazing supper event!), an encyclopedic product from the close of the 15th century (rife with bibliographic citations of Ptolemy’s published works) would be critically inappropriate. However, if I were a comparative anthropologist seeking to compare the evolution of cosmology in Western society and the evolution of cosmology in the East and South Asian world, both encyclopedias would prove enormously relevant and effective resources.
This perception of Encyclopdias that I am attempting to establish enters a territory in which the documentalist/archival dimension of librarianship and the epistemological dimension of anthropology. Essentially, I’m proposing the usage of print encyclopedias as artifacts. By extension, my proposition also implies–rather, it calls for the continued production of print encyclopedias to be used as artifacts preserving our conceptions, perceptions, “facts”, theories, cosmologies and most of all our current epistemic limits!!!
I’m SOOO tempted to found my own study on the use of encyclopedic products as anthropological treasures. Thoughts?