Category Archives: Virtual Encyclopedia

Making a virtual encyclopedia – Part Two


Screenshot of the website (20 January 2012)
Screenshot of the website (20 January 2012)

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.

  1. 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.  []
  2. Wikipedia has even a page dedicated to these projects, entitled School and university projects. []
  3. I am associated to the project as a section editor for France, Germany and Belgium together with Christoph Cornelissen and Nicolas Beaupré. []

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as an historian 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 social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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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, 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 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. 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 an historian 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 social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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