Steve Hochstadt: The End of Encyclopedias?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at]

The radical 18th-century thinkers who proposed democracy instead of aristocracy, legislatures instead of kings, and freedom instead of tyranny, also made a revolutionary proposal about knowledge. They imagined an encyclopedia that would make all significant knowledge available to everyone.

Denis Diderot thought his pioneering Encyclopédie, published just before the French Revolution, would make people “more virtuous and more happy.”

Encyclopedias were too expensive for anyone but the rich, until affordable popular encyclopedias came onto the market in post-World War II America. What a boon for the homework assignments of my generation of baby boomers, and everyone since.

A huge team of experts created summaries on thousands of subjects in every field of knowlege. For those with a serious interest in some topic, the encyclopedia might just be a begininng, but it was a reliable first step. The whole intention behind the encyclopedia was to provide complete, verifiable and neutral information.

Those shelves of identically bound volumes are antiquated now, made superfluous by one of the characteristic inventions of the 21st century, the online encyclopedia. Instead of going home to consult the expensive volumes of “World Book,” students now consult Wikipedia for free on the Internet.

Wikipedia embodies the democracy of authorship and universal accessibility, has 10 times more entries, and is always up-to-date.

But just as this democratic dream seems to have come true, the whole idea of encyclopedias is being challenged. Andrew Schafly, the son of Phyllis Schafly, has created “Conservapedia,” an alternative encyclopedia for conservatives. Conservapedia’s home page appears to set traditional standards for inclusion: Its first “commandment” is “everything you post must be true and verifiable.” Is Conservapedia “a clean and concise resource for those seeking the truth,” as it claims? A glance inside Conservapedia shows something very different....

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Penny Hall - 9/8/2010

I read with pleasure your three most recent Journal-Courier columns. Thank you for presenting, with simple eloquence, how intolerance breeds fear and hatred, and also the importance of continuing talk re: racism. We need voices of reason such as yours more than ever. If only those not already in "the choir" would listen and think.........Penny Hall