Don’t know much about history. . .

As someone whose focus of study in college was the evolution of the encyclopedic novel, I was fascinated by this brief article by Randall Stross on the birth and death of Encarta, Microsoft’s encyclopedia:

Gary Alt, who joined Microsoft in 1995 after working as an editor at World Book and at Encyclopedia Britannica, spoke with pride of the editorial work that he and his Encarta team had done. Fifty people — editors, fact-checkers and indexers — were on the team in 2000, at the peak of Microsoft’s editorial investment in Encarta, he said.

That investment, however, seems to have gone unnoticed by Encarta’s users. Tom Corddry, a senior manager at Microsoft from 1989 to 1996 who headed up its multimedia publishing unit, said, “The editors overestimated the way students would say, ‘This has been carefully edited! And is very authoritative!’”

I liked the way Stross avoids the easy out of “encyclopedias are rendered worthless by Wikipedia” and instead focuses on Google’s indexing process as a meta-encyclopedia of human knowledge. One of my greatest advantages in this world is my ability to come up with the right combination of words to find information.

I’m not being facetious; there’s a skill to figuring out what words or phrases someone else would have written in a web-page or blog-post about a certain topic. I should put “Internet gumshoe” on my non-existent business cards.

(Bonus! I didn’t do much research on Diderot and the encyclopedia’s roots in the Enlightenment during my college project, largely because I knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy and knowledge. On the plus side, I’m now painfully aware of how ignorant I was, so that means I’m on the path to, um, something!)

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