Making a virtual encyclopaedia on World War One

The planned logo of the encyclopaedia

This week I am invited to a workshop organised by a project entitled 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Under the direction of Oliver Janz from the Freie Universität Berlin, a team of international historians will try to establish the leading encyclopaedia on the topic. The goal is to have a finished product for the centenarian commemoration of the First World War in 2014. It is the third time that I participate at a dictionary on the history of the Grande Guerre1 but the first one that it is immediately built for the internet. Till today the only virtual encyclopaedia I am using regularly is Wikipedia, which defines itself as a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”2. The project of 1914-1918-online is quite different. As in a classic printed encyclopaedia, the authors are chosen by an editorial board. As for the the copyright of the content, I have no idea, which model Oliver Janz has in his mind. I am quite curious how the editors will implement the “virtuality” of the encyclopaedia. At the moment I am quite sceptical because they are asking quite long articles (up to 7 500 characters), which nobody will read on the net. And we did get no instructions on how to implement the possibilities offered by internet. The printed encyclopaedia seems still to be the ideal type.

Besides Wikipedia, there are two other german virtual encyclopaedia, which I use sometimes: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte and European History Online (EGO). Both are graphically nice, but not very adapted to the internet because the interaction with the reader is very limited. One of the most important elements of successful products on the web is the blurring of the frontiers between readers and authors who become users. Neither EGO nor Docupedia gives the possibility to “like” (Facebook), “tweet” or “+1” (Google) an article. Contrary to Docupedia, EGO does not even allow comments. The texts are normally quite long, links to other resources on the net are rare and they do not make use of  image, sound and video possibilities.

In a recent article on the use by students of historicum.net, a german history webpage, which defines itself as a platform for students and people interested in history, Schmitt and Kowski underline the following points. The first problem of historicum.net is the low level of awareness of the existence of the platform. How can an academic site compete with Wikipedia? The missing linking between the articles was a second point that was often criticised. Finally students – are they the main public of 1914-19148-online? – prefer small, introductory texts to long articles. Internet is still only used as an introduction to a topic not as the main resource. Interestingly “facebook-functionalities” were not a priority demand.3.

If you have some examples of successful academic encyclopaedias, please let me know in the comments.

  1. Hirschfeld, Gerhard, KRUMEICH, Gerd, RENZ, Irina Hg., Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn, Schöningh, 2003 and LE NAOUR, Jean-Yves, Dictionnaire de la Grande Guerre, Paris, Larousse, 2008 []
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page 12-1-2012 []
  3. Schmitt, Christine, and Nicola Kowski. “Zwischen Handbuch und ‘Facebook’ – was erwarten Studierende von einem geschichtlichen Fachportal?” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 62, no. 11/12 (2011): 655-668. []

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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