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Editing an encyclopedia

By Dr. David Milne

When I was invited to review the second volume of Odd Arne Westad’s and Melvyn Leffler’s The Cambridge History of the Cold War in 2010, I compared the enterprise to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie — which I intended both as a compliment and as a criticism.

Sweeping in its coverage, the Encyclopédie aimed to capture the main currents of Enlightenment thinking. Diderot’s intention in editing the volume was “to change the way people think,” yet it didn’t achieve that grand aim. The collection contains an important introduction by D’Alembert, and carries essays by Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. But contemporary scholars don’t spend much time poring over its volumes. Rather, they focus on the seminal single-authored books: Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. These books are alive, but the Encyclopédie is locked in a particular place in time. Over the past three years I have served as an editor on the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. Before accepting the commission, I queried its purpose on similar lines.

Of course, today’s editors face a challenge that did not confront Diderot: how to retain scholarly authority in a Wikified world, to paraphrase the title of William Cronon’s thought-provoking essay in Perspectives published in 2012. Cronon compares the supple and constantly evolving Wikipedia to the ossified Encyclopedia Brittanica, registering a strong conclusion: “I don’t believe there’s much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.”

Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Bookshelves in the president’s office, École Nationale des Chartes, Paris. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps Britannica’s board of directors read Perspectives for they closed the print edition of the Encyclopedia the following month. The Los Angeles Times described it as perhaps the “single most powerful symbol to date of our rapidly changing media world, a world in which hard copies of books could become a quaint thing of the past.” Print aficionados of a conservative disposition, like Jonathan Franzen, were stunned. On this lamentable trend toward digitization, Franzen wrote “Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around.”

In light of the foregoing, then, is there any benefit in having a named, credentialed scholar write an entry for a hardcopy Encyclopedia — that most old fashioned of enterprises? I’d say yes, and I have a few examples to justify my optimism. Some of the most interesting articles that I commissioned were written by major scholars, forced to condense a huge body of work into two or three thousand words. So to give just a few examples, Thomas Schwartz wrote on LBJ, Richard Immerman on Eisenhower, Jussi Hanhimaki on Kissinger, Geoffrey Stone on Civil Liberties, Andrew Preston on Religion, and Paul Boyer on “War and Peace in Popular Culture.”

What these scholars chose to omit and include was utterly fascinating. Thomas Schwartz’s monograph, Lyndon Johnson and Europe, is a wonderful study. But upon finishing that book, part of me yearned for more reflection on how LBJ’s success in managing relations with Europe slotted into a broader assessment of his foreign policy record. This is exactly what Tom’s succinct and perceptive entry provides.

To refer back to the Enlightenment, if Adam Smith wrote three thousand words on the taproots of economic growth — combining insight from the entirety of his career — the emphasis might be rather different to that presented in The Wealth of Nations. And it is certain that such a hypothetical essay would be read and studied closely today. Brevity can sometimes deepen the profundity of a particular conclusion. Each contributor has been remarkably successful in distilling the essence of their chosen subjects. It is for this reason, and others, that the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History will stay close to my desk.

Dr. David Milne is a Senior Lecturer in American Political History at the University of East Anglia. A historian and analyst of US foreign policy, he is a senior editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. View the Melbourne launch of the Encyclopedia, or attend the American Military and Diplomatic History conference at Oregon State University on 7 May 2013.

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