No doubt, 14-18-online will be a big encyclopedia: they plan more than 500 long articles and more than 1000 encyclopedical smaller articles (about 10 000 pages).1 But will it be more, as among others John Horne asked during a two-day workshop dedicated to the project?
After listening to several historians and IT-specialists, some points remain unclear:
- I still do not see the link between technology and history. At the moment, the plan is to write “printable” texts that are published on the web, after being adapted by the staff hired for the project. But I have somehow the impression that writing immediately for the web implies a different form of composing an argument: the text should/can/must (?) be less linear. One of the numerous problems, which Wikipedia has not resolved either, is how to deal with article-hopping, which happens quite often thanks to the hyperlinks.
- Secondly, as a classic printed encyclopedia, 14-18-online is a very closed project. The licence is at the moment quite restrictive. Neither on the technological nor on the “content” side of the project has there been given much thought on how to integrate not planned content. I could for example imagine working with my students on “World War One in Luxembourg” and assess them on editing and writing posts for 14-18-online: today Wikipedia gets a lot of content this way.2
- Thirdly and this is related to the aforementioned point, the refusal to think about user interaction is very problematic. Academics still seem to see readers mainly as passive users. Wikipedia proves them wrong. I know that a lot of people are quite sceptical on a collaboration with lay historians and the general public in general – I was even struck how much scholars still have reticences on publishing on the net – but this is one of the paradigm of successful publishing on the net.
I hope we will at least find partial solutions to these questions for 2014.3
During the workshop, Annette Becker told me about the Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. This is probably the worst virtual encyclopedia I have seen so far because if the content is, as far as I am able to judge, written by THE specialist in the field, there seems to be no reflection at all on the medium used to transmit the message.
- The German reference encyclopaedia has 26 overview articles and 650 lemmatas on 1000 pages: Hirschfeld, Gerhard, Gerd Krumeich, and Irina Renz, eds. Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2003.
- Wikipedia has even a page dedicated to these projects, entitled School and university projects.
- I am associated to the project as a section editor for France, Germany and Belgium together with Christoph Cornelissen and Nicolas Beaupré.