Why We're Online

Published:June 3, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

From the London Review of Books:

The best one-volume encyclopedia in the world used to be the Columbia Encyclopedia, first published by Columbia University Press in 1935. In our house we have the fifth edition, from 1993, and we still get it out occasionally to look up kings and queens and old-fashioned stuff like that. It’s a lovely book, fat but portable and full of nuggety little entries on most things you can think of. It also has quite a poignant preface, in which the editors talk about the difficulties of updating an encyclopedia in such a fast-changing world: they note how much history, politics, even geography they have had to revise since the collapse of the Soviet Empire just a couple of years earlier. They are clearly proud of their efforts to keep up to speed, but some things inevitably slip through the net. There are for example no entries for ‘email’, the ‘World Wide Web’ or the ‘internet’, all of which were just beginning to attract attention in 1993. The editors think the pace of change at the end of the 20th century means that traditional works of reference are going to have a hard time keeping up. Really they have no idea.