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From the Discussion column in the September 2002 Perspectives

On Encyclopedias and Ideology

Paul F. Grendler, September 2002

Editor's Note: The following is one of the letters received in response to AHA President Lynn Hunt's recent presidential column essays on various subjects. 

Dear Professor Hunt:

I read with interest your column in the March 2002 Perspectives, especially the comments on the proliferation of encyclopedias and the supposed decline of theory. The following observations about encyclopedias come from my experience as editor in chief of the prizewinning and best-selling Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (published in 1999 by Charles Scribner's Sons in association with the Renaissance Society of America).

There are several reasons for the proliferation of encyclopedias. First, the era of great encyclopedias that cover everything, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, seems to be past, perhaps because the explosion of knowledge has made it impossible to produce all-encompassing works. At the same time, the demand for knowledge has increased very greatly. The result has been specialized encyclopedias for particular eras in history, theme encyclopedias (see the recently released Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Editor Derek Jones. Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001) or one- or two-volume encyclopedias on a single topic. Another reason is the development of communication and printing technology. Producing an encyclopedia is never easy. But electronic technology has made an enormous difference.

Commercial publishers create encyclopedias because they can make a profit. In the past, some encyclopedias received outside financial support. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, for example, had a grant from the National Science Foundation. The Dictionary of the Middle Ages received financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Those days are gone. On the contrary, the association of the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) with Encyclopedia of the Renaissance meant that Scribner's paid RSA for the use of its name and some help. But even this was unusual.

Although a scholar may have the initial idea for an encyclopedia, publishers conceive and produce most encyclopedias. And they sell them. Part of the reason is that high school, college, university, and public libraries had more money to spend on books in the 1990s than in previous decades. Publishers have exploited (in the best sense) their markets very well. Once a reference publisher knows the field, has accumulated in-house editorial expertise, scholarly contacts, and technology, to produce encyclopedias, plus a sales force and a good scholarly reputation, it might as well produce more encyclopedias.

Why do scholars contribute to encyclopedias as editors and contributors? It is not overwhelmingly for money. Unfortunately, 10 cents per word and/or a copy of the work, or a reduced price for it, is still the common rate. It is sometimes less. And most editorial stipends are not large, either. The reason why scholars edit and contribute is their commitment to reaching a broader audience. And they believe that the public should have access to balanced, objective, and readable scholarship that summarizes the explosion of scholarly knowledge of the past forty years. It is also possible that the scholars who edit and write for encyclopedias want to present that knowledge in a form that is as free as possible of ideological positions.

So far as can be determined, the academic community does not reward scholars for editing or writing for encyclopedias, any more than it rewards translating. And some scholars refuse to contribute to encyclopedias. This is a shortsighted view.

What is the future for encyclopedias? There are financial and corporate clouds on the horizon. The budget cuts for schools and libraries in state and local governments across the nation bode ill for the purchase of all books, including encyclopedias. And practically every encyclopedia publisher is owned by a media giant that is putting increasing pressure on the dedicated and expert men and women in editorial offices who produce encyclopedias. Corporations want more product in a hurry at less cost. This may threaten the quality of the works and diminish the number of future encyclopedia publishers.

The argument that theory is declining, a case that you made earlier at an ACLS meeting as well, also suggests some comments. Perhaps this is true on the surface but not in a broader sense. Certainly the mind-numbing theory jargon is no longer so prominent in history articles and books. On the other hand, it is still quite strong in literature, at least in English Renaissance literature. And the “new historicism” is often theory driven. The criteria that literature scholars bring to the examination of historical evidence and connections between events and literary texts would probably not satisfy many historians.

But if ideology is viewed as theory under another name, or if one substitutes the word “ideology” for theory, then scholarship, including history, is very much under the sway of theory. By ideology is meant the injection of late 20th-century and early 21st-century ideological concerns of the academic community into scholarship about the past. It is hard to think of any time in the past 40 plus years when contemporary concerns have so influenced the study of the past. In the past Marxism was the contemporary ideology with the greatest impact. Now it is a variety of concerns. Overall, there is the assumption that all history is so relative and nonobjective that it exists only in the minds of historians.

Enough. I am glad that you mentioned encyclopedias. It is an important phenomenon that has received little attention from the leaders of the historical profession or the general reading public.

—Paul F. Grendler
Professor of History Emeritus
University of Toronto