We are informed that the Encyclopaedia Britannica is ceasing publication. This announcement has produced a veritable hew and cry. Thus the Zionica.com news website (27/3/2012) titles its short article on the subject: “Why the Demise of the Encyclopedia [sic] Britannica means the End of Western Civilization.” Really??
The EB began in England in the 18th century (1ST ed. In 2 vols., 1768-1771); it eventually crossed the Atlantic and modern editions were published in Chicago. The most valuable editions were the 9th (1875-1889) and the 11th (1911). As Constance M. Winchell’s standard Guide to Reference Books, 7th ed., 1951, put it, these great editions employed a “fundamental plan which called for a collection of important monographs on large subjects, by specialists, often very scholarly and important, with good bibliographies.” But with the 14th edition (1949) “the traditional monographic policy has been largely abandoned in favor of shorter articles.” “Continuous revision” is now employed—meaning that articles are subject to silent updating in subsequent printings.
When I was taking a graduate library science degree (B.L.S.) at the University of California at Berkeley, the professor of reference materials warned us of the dangers of relying on the EB from the 14th edition on: one was never sure of the actual date of a given article and many articles were unsigned. Later, during my time as head librarian of the Divinity and Philosophy (Swift) Library at the University of Chicago, I encountered callow grad students and recent graduates preparing unsigned articles for the EB—a far cry from the authoritative articles by specialists comprising the bulk of the 11th edition (and the 12th and 13th, for that matter, since these were really the 11th edition with supplementary volumes).
As a professor advising undergraduate and graduate students in the preparation of research papers, theses, and dissertations, I have insisted on a bright-line rule: never cite unsigned encyclopedia articles. Such articles (including, to be sure, Wikipedia articles on the net) are of value only by way of the bibliographies they include and as intermediate links to authoritative, signed articles or books by specialists. My personal library contains the EB 11th edition, but I would never have purchased the 14th.
So does western civilization end with the demise of the Britannica? Hardly. It is ironic that the mass of unsigned, “continuously revised” information freely available through net searching has been the main source of reduced sales of the EB—to the point of making its publication financially impractical. Doubtless this will be the history of virtually all physical-book encyclopedias in competition with the EB. The only way to succeed in the modern informational environment is to produce works of unquestioned quality by unquestioned specialists—something the open-source net will be able to achieve only on a very limited scale. Thus the end of the EB might even convey a lesson to the publishing community that has long been selling its birthright for a mess of popular and superficial pottage.
John Warwick Montgomery
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Our present issue focuses on the philosophy of history and historical method. Some years ago, Romanian scholar Damian Liviu successfully defended a thesis at the distinguished Baptist theological faculty of the University of Bucharest on this editor’s approach to Christian historiography. Liviu is now a faculty member in the History Department of that University, specializing in late antiquity and the medieval period. He offers readers of the Global Journal a detailed treatment of “The Historian’s Craft and Theology in the Thought of John Warwick Montgomery.” And Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Illinois College, critiques Reza Aslan’s effort, in his recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to turn the historical Jesus into a first-century political radical.