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Encyclopedia editions in the digital age

When Grove Music Online launched its new website last December, it marked the beginning of a new era for the encyclopedic dictionary that serves as a primary reference tool for music scholars. Grove has been in continuous publication since 1879 and online since 2001, but the version of Grove that was published on December 2017 remade the dictionary for the first time as “digital first”—that is, with online prioritized over print—and is thus Grove’s first truly digital edition.

The word “edition” poses some difficulties in the digital era, however. We are used to thinking of editions of encyclopedias as the culmination of the work of many scholars over a period of many years. Each of the prior editions of Grove bears the stamp of the editor in chief who was responsible for it. I consult earlier editions frequently and each has its own character, its strengths and its weaknesses. Each carries the ideas of a team of scholars and reflects the scholarly issues of its time. The word “edition” then is both a way to define a type of scholarly ownership of a dictionary and to highlight the way it is a product of a historical moment marked in scholarly time with a finished publication.

When Grove was published in print, each edition represented the work of hundreds of editors and authors working together in a concentrated way to bring the contents of the dictionary into alignment with current scholarship. The primary work was the writing of new articles and the revision of existing ones. But creating a new edition also included looking for ways to relate the articles to one another through cross-references and the index. These tasks still constitute the bulk of the work we do. The index has been translated on a digital platform into a type of metadata—that is, data about the data in the articles that defines and organizes the articles in various ways—called taxonomy. This taxonomy is now the way that the structure and priorities of Grove Music Online are revealed. It is, in effect, what defines the edition.

Image credit: “GroveDictionaryofMandM-firstedition-1” of the first edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music, courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Taxonomies are basically a way of making lists of articles, but with an eye towards both organizing knowledge and also creating networks of information. They are complicated to write because they have to serve many purposes at once, some of which may be at odds with one another. On the site, the taxonomy’s main role is to help readers make sense of the articles that have already been published, so it needs to reflect the content we already have. For editors, the taxonomy also serves as a plan for the future—what are those areas we intend to find out about and how will they fit with the subjects already published in the dictionary?

Taxonomies also have to create networks effectively with other taxonomies. They need to reflect, at least in part, established scholarly fields. And they need to speak well to other taxonomies so that we can meet the expectations of scholars, and connect our data with that of other resources; some of the taxonomies we consulted for Grove included a standard classification system of musical instruments called the Hornbostel-Sachs system, well as the Library of Congress and taxonomies of related disciplines currently in use at Oxford University Press. In these senses, the taxonomy is less of a map than a blueprint.

Reference taxonomies can take several forms. They can be a flat list of categories—this type is best for taxonomies with fewer categories. They can, like Grove’s, be hierarchical, where categories can have subcategories. In either of these cases, it is possible to attach multiple categories to a single piece of data. Or they can be a type called an ontology (a term that exists at some degree of remove from its metaphysical sense) where in addition to assigning categories, you can assign relationships between them. Really large taxonomies like Grove’s may also contain taxonomical nodes to help people find what they’re looking for, effectively establishing a taxonomy of taxonomies.

Image credit: “GMO_website” of the new Grove Music Online homepage, courtesy of Katie Bennett, Marketing Assistant at Oxford University Press.

The Grove taxonomy contains nodes for instruments, geography, eras, people (occupations), and places (place types). Each node is hierarchical. It does not, however, define relationships, so it is not an ontology. If I wanted to tag a biographical article of a violinist, I would add the appropriate tags from geography and eras to situate the figure in time and place, I’d code the occupation as performer>instrumentalist and I’d add a tag from the instruments taxonomy to reflect what type of instrumentalist she was: chordophones>bowed chordophones>violin. If Grove’s taxonomy were an ontology, I would also need to define a relationship between “instrumentalist” and “violin” to indicate “player of.”

Grove’s new edition has a number of goals, but one of the most critical is to more firmly define Grove’s area of coverage as global. Grove originated in the late 19th century as a dictionary of classical music and musicians primarily working in Europe with particular attention to Britain, where the dictionary originated. Grove taxonomy has changed over time with each new edition, but has continued to reflect that Western Art Music was the principal area of focus. You could see this in the way the recently retired taxonomy named eras after periods most relevant to Western Art Music (e.g. Baroque) and in the way its taxonomy featured much more detail for Western Music than non-Western.  There was only a single category to cover music outside of Europe and the United States. This reflected an earlier period in scholarship that prioritized, in a music dictionary, regional coverage of non-Western music rather than other types of information like biographies of musicians. The new taxonomy adds year spans to era names, specific geographical categorization, and most importantly, provides topical categories that are not limited by region so that we can now find a list of, for instance, all of the articles about music and religion in all of its forms.

Adding the new taxonomy has allowed us to see gaps in our coverage in new ways and the information we get from the new taxonomy will define our publication plans for the foreseeable future. It is a bit like writing the index before the book. In the print era, the articles were written and the edition was created when complete, at publication. In the digital era, the edition is in a sense created first by creating a taxonomy that reflects and defines editorial priorities, and launching it on a website where the articles are published into it over time. We begin our work at the end and will continue with this edition until the vision of the taxonomy is satisfied. The articles will continue to grow and change, I hope for many years to come.

Featured image credit: “turntable-1337986_1280” by theglassdeck. CC0 via Pixabay.

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