No, it’s not what you think. It’s the creeping insistence that everything needs its own encyclopedia.
Older readers of Lingua Franca will remember the era of multivolume encyclopedias. Some of you may have grown up with classy sets of Britannicas. Others may have had their parents acquire a humbler set of Funk & Wagnalls, one volume at a time, at the grocery store, as mine did. The books were offered week by week, letter by letter, as if on a slow educational conveyor belt. You may not have needed to restock on Cheerios, but if you wanted a chance to buy the letter E, you went shopping.
The early encyclopedia frenzy was one of the highest of middle-brow continuity marketing schemes, and even became the stuff of pop culture. TV’s Laugh-In gave Dan Rowan the punch line “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!” That may have been the last moment at which an encyclopedia could sound risqué.
All that’s gone now, along with the hardbound, hernia-inducing Oxford English Dictionary (which I don’t miss, mind you—if ever a reference work wanted to be on line, this is it).
Today every academic’s favorite digital reference work is the hive-mind of knowledge. Does anyone seriously claim they’ve never looked at Wikipedia? (Yes you. Admit it, you don’t go to the bookshelf to check on the dates of the War of the Spanish Succession, or even to remember what it was.)
But it’s not just Wikipedia any more. Look around, at least digitally, and you’ll observe that we’re embarked on a pediazation—or maybe we have to call it a “–pediazation”—of everything.
First there’s Wikipedia in other cultural vernaculars. China has a Baidupedia. Bengali readers have a Banglapedia.
Some –pedia names aren’t what you might expect, however. Dr. Emanuele Russo, an Italian physician, has a page on his website called Russopedia. There you can find the names, addresses, and phone numbers of pharmacies in Genoa.
The Folger Shakespeare Library now has a Folgerpedia, which it describes as a “collaboratively-edited encyclopedia of all things ‘Folger’.” This is not to be confused with Shakespearepedia or Shakespedia.
I couldn’t find a Bardpedia or a Willpedia or a Willopedia, but there’s a Willowpedia, described as “a willow energy crop information resource at Cornell University.”
Judgepedia is “an interactive encyclopedia of courts and judges” with pages that cheerily greet you, though in a sober sort of way (“Welcome to Alabama on Judgepedia!”). The site’s creators have doubled down on -pedia, providing helpful tabs on Ballotpedia and Policypedia. As a language person I’d argue that some judicial restraint might be in order here.
Gagapedia is “the first & largest Lady Gaga wiki,” the goal of which is to provide “a free online encyclopedia on everything Gaga.”
In football-mad Brazil, Flamengo fans can contribute to a Flapédia, which makes them flapedistas.
The town of Harvard, Neb. (population 1,013), has trademarked HarvardPedia, which promises its users information on “products and services in this easy-to-remember place where you spend less time searching, and more time finding what you want.”
Note to readers: Those with statewide interests beyond Harvard (Nebraska) are referred to NebraskaPedia.
Stanfordpedia, on the other hand, directs you to Stanford University. Which may be disappointing news to the residents of Stanford, Ind., or Stanford, South Africa.
Why is the –pedia move so irresistible? Maybe because it calls for a lot of different, not easily reconciled things—the pull of community, the safe distance of digital mediation, the flash of celebrity that updating a site can provide (or if not celebrity then at least a retellable anecdote).
Of course, the -pedia move is also about the idealistic belief in the free exchange of free information. And most of all, it’s about the will to believe that whatever interests you is special, separate, busy, interesting, and a world in itself.
The end of pediazation may already be upon us. The manifesto of Mepedia—“a personal branding and networking platform for a new generation of talent”—embraces the goal of connecting talented people to jobs they love and organizations they will want to support. Nothing to object to there.
Except maybe the me part. The encyclopedia was about not-me, its force centrifugal, making us look outward. The age of Wiki has done many useful things, but the me-ness of pediazation is centripetal.
Digital reference works are now an important part of our thinking lives, but the borders around the word “reference” are more porous than ever.
The oracle who proclaimed gnothi seauton—know thyself—might be surprised to learn that the answer may soon be in our own private I-pedias.
OK then, so reference has many faces. Still, some of them make me think of the world’s oldest break-up line: ”It’s not you. It’s me.”