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Encyclopedic Ambitions

Pete Springer/OPB

The Oregon Encyclopedia launched on Valentine’s Day, 2008 with grand dreams. It was to be, its creators wrote, “a comprehensive and authoritative compendium of information about Oregon’s history and culture.” The initial plan was to write as many as 3,000 articles about the people, places, and events that have made (and continue to make) this state what it is — with a special effort to include the voices of those who often don’t make the historical cut. A year and a bit later, the Encyclopedia’s rigorous editorial process and a lack of resources has tempered those early plans. There are 250 articles up right now, and they hope to have 500-750 online by September. A printed volume may follow in 2010.

Any encyclopedia that launched in the late 2000s was inevitably going to draw comparisons to Wikipedia, and this was no exception. The models of the two projects are, in fact, strikingly different.

Wikipedia is based on continual, communal, transparent editing — information as conversation. It doesn’t make claims for authoritative content, but instead emphasizes an asymptotic approach to accuracy.

The Oregon Encyclopedia does invite many forms of community participation, but it hearkens back to an almost 19th century ideal of truth: “All entries are written by knowledgeable authors, reviewed by experts, and meticulously checked to ensure accuracy.”

There’s also a very different scale of “finished” work. A many-year head-start and a less institutionally rigorous editorial structure means that a very active statewide Wikipedia community — called WikiProject Oregon — has already collaborated on over 5,000 Oregon-related articles. (One starting point: the Oregon portal. If you’re feeling meta, you can even read the Wikipedia entry about the Oregon Encyclopedia.)

For all of these differences, the people behind both projects are laborers of love: passionate about history, engaged in their communities, and working largely for free. What might these two groups of encyclopedists learn from each other?

What reference works do you turn to when you need to learn about the world around you? How do you use them? What’s been left out of previous history books? What events, or people, or places deserve a brighter historical spotlight?


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