The networked life of professional encyclopaedias: Quantification, tradition, and trustworthiness
First Monday

The networked life of professional encyclopaedias: Quantification, tradition, and trustworthiness by Olof Sundin and Jutta Haider

This paper aims at making visible new orders of encyclopaedic knowledge by means of an ethnographic study carried out during eight months at the editorial office of the leading commercial encyclopaedia in Sweden, Nationalencyklopedin (NE). The investigation is framed in a socio–technical understanding of how people, technologies and practices relate to each other. Three themes were identified during the analysis: Organisation of labour amongst the editors, the use of statistics, and the contrast between NE as a producer of facts and NE as a producer of analysis. The analysis revolves around the ambivalence, uncertainty, sometimes even friction, between traditional encyclopaedic knowledge and network culture. The often routine–based practices of updating articles meet ideas of project work, of open data, of algorithms and most of all of quantification.


Changing forms of access to knowledge
A sociotechnical perspective on encyclopaedic knowledge
Material collection and analysis
Results: Behind the scene of encyclopaedic knowledge
From the alphabet to popularity
Facts or interpretation?
Conclusion: New orders of public knowledge?




Encyclopaedias have for many centuries, together with a series of cultural heritage, educational and scientific institutions, been one of the most central institutions for the production of facts, for their solidification and for the establishment of public knowledge. We are now in the middle of a transition period and the way in which encyclopaedic knowledge, as a form of public knowledge, is communicated is changing profoundly (Featherstone and Venn, 2006). Yet, especially in institutions like schools and libraries encyclopaedias will — in all likelihood — continue to be indispensable also in the future, albeit in new ways that are emerging right now.

As part of an abstract knowledge system that has dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment, encyclopaedias form an important part of the infrastructure for learning in institutions like schools, libraries and also universities. Over a period of just 20 years, encyclopaedias have gone from stable print editions via CD-ROM to continuously updated online versions and can now even be accessed on mobile phones. This digitisation of knowledge is much more than just a direct conversion of print encyclopaedias into a Web format. The very way in which encyclopaedias are produced has changed, at the same time as communication and use of encyclopaedic knowledge has become different, always available and in constant competition with other sources (Haider and Sundin, 2010; Sundin and Francke, 2009).

Encyclopaedias’ position as a yardstick for what is considered accepted, public knowledge depends on them being seen as trustworthy by their users and by society at large. Attempts at constructing trustworthiness must be part of the specific configurations that characterise encyclopaedias’ production settings. Yet, while contemporary professional encyclopaedias (e.g., Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Nationalencyklopedin) feature as central actors for establishing the trustworthiness of others (e.g., in comparison with Wikipedia), they themselves have in their contemporary digital forms often remained in the blind spot (for exceptions, see Rasoamampianina (2012) and Soojung–Kim Pang (1998)). Likewise, while studies on alternative online encyclopaedias — Wikipedia that is — are myriad and cover in depth a wide array of relevant aspects, the professional encyclopaedias in a networked and digital media landscape are largely neglected in research. This paper addresses this issue by turning its attention to the ways in which digitised and networked encyclopaedic knowledge is constructed in contemporary professional encyclopaedias. In focus is the case of the leading Swedish commercial general reference encyclopaedia, Nationalencyklopedin (NE). NE is very well known and well established in Sweden and not least in its digital format it is very popular as a resource in schools. By means of an ethnographic study at the editorial office of NE, this article aims at making visible new orders of encyclopaedic knowledge. Specifically what guides our investigation is a loose focus on trustworthiness. This is sharpened by two overarching aspects that emerged as significant throughout the investigation and to which we return. These are first, the ambivalence between a powerful tradition and emerging new orders and second, the quantification of life, particularly of knowledge settings and knowledge work. For this we draw predominantly on George Tarde’s understanding of knowledge as cumulative and quantifiable (e.g., Tarde, 2010) and as the result of aggregation, as discussed by Bruno Latour (2010). Karin Knorr Cetina’s (1999) framework for investigating epistemic cultures structures our analysis.

By doing this it is our intention to contribute to a theoretical development for understanding arrangements for contemporary knowledge production in networked environments.



Changing forms of access to knowledge

In contemporary society two closely related trends concerning changes in knowledge production and access to knowledge stand out. These are first, the continued globalisation of knowledge, frequently building on a universalistic conception of knowledge, and second, the digitisation of knowledge (cf., Featherstone and Venn, 2006). These are interconnected at the same time that they undermine each other, something that is acutely relevant for encyclopaedias in networked, digital environments. Universalistic conceptions of knowledge (often as science), which also underlie the encyclopaedic project with its roots in the Enlightenment, have been criticised severely as forming part of a colonial European ontology (cf., Harding, 1998; Herren, 2007). Networked digital media — although obviously we have to be careful not to give in to naïve conceptions of a democratisation of knowledge which were popular in the early days of the Internet — have been said to be open for user participation and hence for other knowledge formats and alternative voices (cf., Papacharissi, 2010; Lievrouw, 2011). At the same time, one of the globally most successful encyclopaedias for alternative and participatory knowledge production, Wikipedia, is by and large situated in an Enlightenment ideal of knowledge (Haider and Sundin, 2010; Reagle, 2010). Although there are clear continuities, networked digital environments have also in many ways transformed the playing field for the creation of knowledge and trustworthiness in these regards.

As encyclopaedias go, the Swedish Nationalencyklopedin is a new kid on the block. In fact, computers and even the Internet have been around throughout the entire time of its existence. Still, conditions and possibilities have changed profoundly during this time, turning NE’s life into a fast forward version of encyclopaedias’ media history. Nationalencyklopedin published its first volume at the end of the 1980s and in 1996 the last volume of 20 (plus three appendices) was published. The print encyclopaedia, which is the result of the work of over 4,500 subject experts, has sold approximately 180,000 sets (NE, 2012a) since it came into existence. In 2000, NE was launched as an online product and service. NE is financed by subscriptions. The main customers of the encyclopaedia today are largely schools and universities, but also include the general public as well as various private and public sector organisations. Today, NE makes a point of not just being an encyclopaedia. It calls itself a service. The company sells dictionaries, games, quizzes, smart phone applications and teaching aids. Especially the latter have become a central part of its business. Most of NE’s products are online and integrated with the encyclopaedia or they can at least be accessed through it. Despite its many different products and services, NE is, by the general public, still mainly associated with the encyclopaedia itself. This is of course due to its name, which also contributes to how it is perceived. NE’s ‘unique selling point’ is trustworthiness coupled with local relevance, in other words ‘Swedishness’. On its Web site one can read the following: “The vision is that NE will be the Swedish people’s leading information and knowledge company”. And its mission “is to provide relevant, objective and fact checked information and knowledge” (NE, 2012b). How does this happen when the product, in its production, communication and use, is increasingly digital, networked, ubiquitous, easily accessible and yet constantly competing and fighting for attention?



A sociotechnical perspective on encyclopaedic knowledge

This investigation is couched in a sociotechnical understanding of how people, technologies and practices relate to each other. It aims at excavating precisely these relations in order to see how the encyclopaedia works as a knowledge production setting in a digital and networked world (cf., Czarniawska–Joerges, 2011; Johansson, 2012; Mager, 2009; Niederer and van Dijck, 2010; Sundin, 2011). Today’s knowledge society is, as Knorr Cetina (2007) shows, permeated with knowledge cultures and continuously growing numbers of knowledge settings. She argues for the need to investigate the very arrangements that constitute the production cultures engaged. Specifically Knorr Cetina’s notion of epistemic culture becomes relevant here:

The notion of epistemic culture is designed to capture these interiorised processes of knowledge creation. It refers to those sets of practices, those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms — bounded through affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence — which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know. [1]

Mainly connected to science technology studies (STS), this perspective has guided the study of laboratory work in order to open the so–called “black box” of scientific knowledge (Latour, 1987). In this tradition, knowledge production in science is exposed as a messy process, not always in accordance with portrayals of the scientific ideal of rationality. For the purpose of the present study, such a perspective is adopted to examine the “black box” of encyclopaedic knowledge production. In the spotlight for our study are the “machineries of knowledge construction” [2]; that is, those techniques, practices, ways of understanding encyclopaedic knowledge, systems, technologies and of course people that are involved in producing trustworthy encyclopaedic knowledge. For this to work for our purposes and to suit our empirical material we used the following sign posts to look for in our investigation; actors, spatial arrangements, and discourses/practices. In this we follow, yet slightly adapt, Knorr Cetina’s proposal for the investigation of epistemic cultures (cf., Knorr Cetina, 2007).


A sociotechnical perspective implies, as we already indicated, a view of people and technologies that does not give analytical priority to one or the other, instead, we appreciate that human and non–human actors are interdependent and that both need to be investigated as actors influencing other actors. For example, it is impossible to understand the popularity of Wikipedia without knowing something about the ranking mechanisms of Google. Thus, Google is not a passive technique but quite clearly an active agent in knowledge construction (cf., Eklöf and Mager, 2013), specifically in the construction of relevance and authority, which more or less visibly happens numerically. In the process of producing encyclopaedic knowledge a number of actors are involved: People such as editors, owners, external experts, librarians, PR staff, users, subscriptions agents, sales persons, technicians and so forth, and equally important a large number of non–human actors, for instance editorial databases and principles, search engines, reading devices, Web browsers, classification systems, social media, scholarly journals, other encyclopaedias (not least Wikipedia) and so forth. Obviously their relations to each other are of central concern to us and are in themselves key to understanding the arrangements that literally make encyclopaedic knowledge.

Spatial arrangements

The actors constitute and act within spatial arrangements. There are actual physical spaces, with work desks, telephones, and computers, meeting rooms, restaurants and so forth. Yet, apart from these centres, the spatial arrangements for knowledge production are often distributed. That is, the editorial office is not the boundary of the space where encyclopaedic production takes place. For instance, in the case of professional encyclopaedias a management exists who delivers the monthly salary to staff. They sit in offices, using smart phones, in front of desks with desktop computers on them that might handle spreadsheets that could be stored in folders on a server located in a different country; these files communicate with economic systems using software connected to banks and to the tax office, and so forth. As is the case elsewhere, at NE more and more activities are carried out online, in various cloud services, on e–mail servers, in chat programs, on the phone, in databases, in the editorial content management system and so forth. The above example makes it very obvious how distributed spaces are not merely virtual spaces, but include physical ones brought together in shifting arrangements through networks. For ease of use and for reasons of readability, throughout the rest of this paper we refer to centred spatial arrangements, meaning physical places, and distributed spatial arrangements, meaning those that are realised in a certain situation through networks of different kinds, throughout the rest of this paper. Yet, we recognise that they are inscribed into each other in so many ways that it is almost impossible to meaningfully think of one without the other.


Furthermore, there are dominant regimes of relating to objects, of expression, of representation and so forth. Certain things are possible to do or say in one setting and they bring with them certain conventions, restrictions, opportunities and ramifications. Knorr Cetina [3] talks about “object–relation regimes”, which suits the context of science production, that she is investigating. For our purpose notions of practices and discourse fit better to describe these regimes of knowing, representing, relating and doing that structure spatial arrangements, distributed or centralised, and actors and their relations between and with each other and even with discourses/practices themselves. Embedded in the practices surrounding or making up the production of encyclopaedic knowledge are certain ways of doing this, not necessarily obvious to the people involved and formed while mixing with other actors. These practices could be referred to as ‘the way things are typically done’. For example, ‘the ways things are done’ in one encyclopaedia relate to how things are done at other encyclopaedias, also in the very distributed arrangement that constitutes Wikipedia. In the case of NE, there is a certain way of relating to databases, of doing things within the content management system, of talking to each other in the lunchroom, of addressing colleagues in an e–mail message, which might differ from how an outside subject expert is addressed and so forth.



Material collection and analysis

The study concerns how the various actors involved — people, principles, technologies and other devices — together constitute the encyclopaedia and construct their trustworthiness during a period of change at NE. An ethnographic lens (e.g., Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007) has directed the empirical investigation towards understanding encyclopaedic knowledge production by drawing on the concept of epistemic culture (Knorr Cetina, 1999). A wide array of different types of material was collected from a field study consisting of observations in the editorial office, semi–structured interviews and informal conversations. Included are also analyses of related documents. One of the authors conducted all material collection. The observations were ‘participatory’ in the sense that the researcher not only was observing, but also interacted with the editors (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). The researcher avoided giving his opinion on matters concerning NE, but if someone specifically asked for his opinion he did provide it. The general objective of the project was introduced already in 2010 to the then Editor in Chief and later on in 2011 to a newly appointed Editor in Chief. The project was introduced to the other editorial members at the first editorial meeting attended. At one of these meetings in autumn 2012 preliminary results were presented, and the main results as they are presented in this paper were presented early in 2013. Furthermore, the Editor in Chief read a late draft of the current article and gave his agreement.

The material analysed in this paper was primarily collected over a period of 10 months, from March 2012 to December 2012, with an introductory interview with the Editor in Chief in 2011. All together, seven digitally recorded interviews (between 30 and 120 minutes) and five longer informal conversations (between 20 and 60 minutes), in which notes were taken, were conducted. Furthermore, 13 days of participatory observations were carried out, including participation in six editorial meetings and participation in a two–hour presentation of the encyclopaedia at a school that was carried out by Editor 5. Internal documents were collected along the way. Field notes were kept throughout the entire duration of the project. Quotations from interviews and internal documents, as well as one quotation from a Swedish daily newspaper, have been translated from Swedish into English.

The analysis was carried out in accordance with the sociotechnical framework as stated above. Informal conversations, which were not recorded, as well as observations were analysed based on the researchers’ field notes. Interviews, field notes and internal documents were analysed through constant comparative analysis concentrating on recurring differences and similarities. These were put in relation to the material and formal aspects of the affordances made possible by the technical actors as identified in the study. Throughout the analysis the main focus was on how the interplay of and the relations between spatial arrangements (distributed and centred), human and non–human actors, discourses and practices constitute NE as a producer of trustworthy public knowledge.



Results: Behind the scene of encyclopaedic knowledge

Three themes were identified during the analysis: First, organisation of labour amongst the editors; second, the use of statistics; and third, the contrast between NE as the producer of facts and NE as a producer of analysis. Prior to discussing these themes we present some aspects of the spatial arrangements for knowledge production at NE, focusing on the centred physical location, the editorial office.

The arrangements of knowledge production

When entering the editorial office you meet an open plan office space. The building is located in Malmö harbour and formed and furnished in a way that brings to mind a boat. This location in the city is of significant symbolic value. The transformation of the harbour area into the heart of the “new” Malmö has been at the centre of the transition and re–branding of a former industrial city in decline into the expansive, vibrant, young knowledge city that has become Malmö’s new identity (justified or not). The new university, a landmark building, is just across the dock from NE’s offices. A new media cluster uniting a growing sector of Internet entrepreneurs, old and new media, PR agencies and the like, located in a re–furbished former industrial building is just down the road. NE is a paying member of this umbrella organisation in the sections “learning” and “publishing” [4]. The physical location of NE’s editorial office in this area of regeneration and of a visible transition from industry to knowledge society is central to understanding NE’s split position between old and new, tradition and innovation, authenticity and gentrification, that shapes its activities, sometimes more and sometimes less fruitfully so.

The editorial space is long and narrow and the floor looks like a wooden desk. The workplaces are placed facing the windows and in the middle there are small meeting spaces, a coffee machine and bookshelves with old encyclopaedias behind glass, functioning mainly as decorative elements. The editors sit at their desks with a bookshelf behind them. Papers and printouts lay on their tables and a 1.5 meter–high shield separates each editor from his or her neighbour. Their Web browsers have many tabs open at the same time. For instance Editor 1, who works with social and political subjects — such as the labour market, immigration, minorities and law — has 10 tabs open simultaneously when I talk to him at his desk (Field notes, 11 December 2012). The World Bank Web site and Wikipedia are two of the tabs. The editorial members have different subject responsibilities.As much as possible they sit close to those who have been assigned similar subjects. That is, those who work with the natural science subjects sit together, while those responsible for the humanities and social sciences sit close to each other. Further away in the open plan office reside the administration and technicians. During the last few years, the company has reduced its staff. In a short time the number of editors has decreased from 26 to nine and the number of staff in total (counting also sales personnel, management and technicians) has been cut by around 40 percent, from approximately 50 to 30. Today, the remaining nine editors are responsible for about 190,000 long articles and 11,000 easy–to–read articles, adapted for school use.

There is a lot of movement in the editorial office. The editors walk around and talk to each other. People from the administration and the technical unit pass the editors on the way in and out. Most of the time, the editors sit at their desks and work. They write, read, surf and talk on the phone. From time to time, there are different kinds of meetings with the management and representatives from the editorial office, most often with the Editor in Chief. Twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, many of the editors gather around the coffee machine and the high tables located there. At noon most editorial members, as well as other staff employed at NE, take themselves to the top floor restaurant in the same building. In the beginning of the observation period editorial meetings were irregular, yet in autumn 2012 editorial meetings were scheduled every other week. At these meetings, general principles for articles and priorities for subjects are discussed. Besides work practices, the meetings are used to inform all editorial members about what’s happening in general at the company.

Organising labour

Division of labour

Each editor has responsibility for certain subjects and all articles in the assigned areas. They are all academically educated and some have doctorates. Journalism, university jobs and teaching are examples of roads into — and in some cases also roads out of — the encyclopaedia. The Editor in Chief for instance has a background in journalism. While the editors are educated in an area related to the subjects they are editors for, staff cuts have also meant that they have had to vastly extend their areas of responsibility beyond what was their initial expertise when they were hired. For example, one editor is responsible for the subjects anthropology, geography, economics, tourism and more. Obviously he is neither educated in all these areas nor is he an expert in all of them. Although he was in the subjects for which he was initially hired. Editor 1 expresses the situation in the following:

Our belief in expert knowledge is about to be if not reduced so at least changed. /.../ We don’t have the resources for a large network and that forces us to make use of generalists who to a higher degree are highly qualified regarding source critical assessments, when it comes to working with large amounts of information, and not least to expressing themselves encyclopaedically. /.../ My personal perception is that it is not least the ability to express oneself in a way that makes the material trustworthy that is very important. And this competence is not always to be found in the academy, that’s just so.

It is very interesting how expertise is here shifted from knowing the material to being able to treat it in a certain way to give it a certain desired shape. Hence writing in a certain style — “encyclopaedically” in order to make the material trustworthy — is here where the actual expertise is situated. Trustworthiness is added during the writing process.

Each subject has a certain number of articles. For instance, anthropology has 1,768 articles belonging to it, which constitutes 1.12 percent of the total number of articles (Internal document 1). Depending on the character of each subject, the workload differs; history articles require for example, according to Editor 2, less frequent updating than politics articles do or those in other fast changing areas (Field notes, 26 June 2012). NE uses a detailed quantitative system for weighting different factors in order to distribute responsibility for articles between the editors in different areas. At the same time, different articles within one editor’s responsibility are prioritised in different ways, depending on customers’ demands — that is users’ behaviour at the NE site — and NE’s profile for a specific subject. Also these are quantitative measures (Interview with Editor 2, 26 June 2012). Different subjects also have different needs for updating. In fact, the need to prioritise within each editor’s area of responsibility has become increasingly pressing due to fewer and fewer editors working at NE (Field notes, 28 June 2012). To exemplify, Editor 3 is responsible for the following subjects: anatomy, biology, physiology, genetics, pets, immunology, medicine, microbiology, neurology, odontology, psychiatry, psychology, sexology, health, mushrooms, veterinary medicine, zoology. In total, these subjects include 26,403 articles — 24,241 long articles and 1,283 ‘easy–to–read’ articles for school students.

Along with the division of subjects comes the editors’ network of external experts. Even though the editors also update articles on their own — through continuously following media and research — they also rely on external experts for textual input. The decision concerning which material has to be dealt with by experts and what can be done internally lies with the editors. “We make a lot judgements at the editorial office about what we consider should be sent out for a review and update”, says, for instance, Editor 1.

The names of experts are visible as either authors or, if an article has changed often or concerns different areas of expertise, as a country article might, they are listed as contributors in a column to the right in the Web edition. If you click on a name you get a list of all the articles that person has worked on. However it remains unclear what a person’s credentials are. Interestingly, when searching for their names on Google, it is always a Wikipedia entry, which comes first, while — at least for the ones that we searched for — paradoxically there are no links to NE itself. Here, Google and Wikipedia serve to establish the trustworthiness of NE by allowing one to background check their expert writers. NE plans to visibly highlight the contributions of external experts more in the future (Interview with Editor 2, 26 June 2012). This can definitely be seen as a strategy for increasing trustworthiness on the Web since it would make visible an entire network of universities, publications, titles and such like that are part of the already vetted identity of these subject experts.

Having said that, the editors write more on their own today than they did previously (Interview with Editor 2, 26 June 2012). When revising, articles, or those parts of articles, which are primarily based on facts are easier to update than articles that convey a narrative and which are often written by an expert. One editor puts it the following way: “In reality, you want an article that is difficult to update” (Interview with Editor 4, 28 June 2012). By leaning on external experts, brought in from academia, NE uses the stamp of the academic world to gain trustworthiness. Here encyclopaedias and the academy are two institutions with mutual interests. The academy participates in generating trustworthiness for encyclopaedic knowledge at the same time as encyclopaedias are a traditional way for the academy to ascertain the academy’s trustworthiness among lay people and in society at large.

From division to collaboration

There is a rhythm of work that consists of an alternation among individual work, contacts with external experts, editorial meetings, coffee breaks and lunch. Personal responsibility and independence are quite strong, based on a division of subjects, and thus of articles, among the editors; at the same time there is a growing focus on collaboration. To some extent, the editors work together with a particular theme in the encyclopaedia, such as for instance ‘countries’. Simultaneously, the editorial office must be alert to changing demands from the management. In one editorial meeting the Editor in Chief presented a request from the management. They should deliver so–called theme packages for the school market (Field notes, 26 June 2012). The theme packages consist of tasks and exercises in different subjects and for different age groups complete with links to the encyclopaedia as well as with links to external sources outside NE.

On one of the first days of the participatory observations, all editorial members worked together on the article on Denmark, the neighbouring country. Depending on their subject responsibilities, they all contributed to the article. It turned out that the editors had worked since the autumn of 2011 with what they referred to as the “Countries project” (Interview with Editor 4, 28 June 2012). That is, they focused their editorial work on updating articles on countries. The work concerned standardisation of the structure between different country–articles as well as updating the information in general. They worked individually, each in front of their computers, with group meetings scheduled at regular intervals.

The Countries project was a new form of collaboration among the editors (Interview with Editor 4, 28 June 2012). Earlier, the pace of updating and the focus depended largely on the options of the external experts and on their areas of expertise. The collaboration is a result of the cuts in editorial staff during recent years. It has become necessary to collaborate and, at the same time, easier to do so with help of e–mail, Google docs, and other digital tools. “Today we work to a larger extent as a collective, which makes the borders between different types of disciplinary knowledge break up. We work more like a team, more project work”, as Editor 1 describes the situation. During the first months of the field study, the Countries project was always present in the editorial office. One could for instance hear one of the editorial members asking another one in passing about the agriculture of Slovenia. The Countries project dominated many of editorial meetings and the editors were involved in each other’s work. The project also made a discussion about the future direction of NE possible among the editorial members. For example, when the heading “nature” was discussed in articles on countries, they agreed on making NE less academic, and supported by academic disciplines, and more accessible for the general public (Field notes, 23 March 2012).

The shift to project work as an increasingly dominant form for the organisation of work at NE can be seen as part of a general development in management and work organisation. The project form can be seen as an expression of what has in organisational studies been called “post–bureaucracy” (cf., McKenna, et al., 2010). While bureaucracy, the dominant form of work organisation for at least a century, is often associated with inefficiency and hierarchies, so–called post–bureaucratic forms, such as project work, are supposed to be flat, dynamic, flexible, and fostering of innovation (cf., McKenna, et al., 2010). One of the key features of the project is of course the way in which it is supposed to bring people and their competences (as opposed to their ranks and titles) together for a certain period and with a clear goal in mind, after which the group dissolves and new constellations emerge working on new projects. Already here we can see how this is in conflict with the conditions for work at an encyclopaedia which exists by virtue of the always unfinished and constantly changing — namely, knowledge itself. The Countries project and others that we will come across later on can never be true projects, one might say somewhat provocatively. It can never be finished in any real sense, delivered to the client as a software package or left to the user to update. Neither can it be finished if it is supposed to be worthwhile for NE to invest time in it.

The following section returns to the powerful signifiers of what is called old bureaucracy, the alphabet and hierarchical subject classification. We will see how they continue to configure work and knowledge while giving way to a post–bureaucratic order structured by user logs.



From the alphabet to popularity

The encyclopaedias that emerged around the time of the Enlightenment are said to have shifted knowledge’s organizational principle; from the tree of knowledge to the alphabet. Yet despite the success of the alphabetic principle, it has not erased classification endeavours, in fact not even in the beginning. As Ann Blair [5] points out, already d’Alembert defended the alphabetic principles in the Encyclopédie at the same time that he provided readers with an image of a tree of knowledge as a supplement to the alphabet. Also in NE the alphabet and topical classifications co–exist. Each article in NE is classified using the Swedish library classification system SAB, a hierarchical system built around subject classes not unlike the Dewey Decimal System. That is, it is possible to use an internal or a Web search engine to find information in NE, but it is also possible to browse for information using a topical tree, which narrows a subject down. According to statistics, based on Google Analytics, which NE uses extensively, retrieved from the Editor in Chief (Field notes, 28 June 2012), the dominant rout to an NE article is from search traffic (65 percent), followed by direct traffic (27 percent) and referral traffic (7 percent). According to the Editor in Chief, “World War II” is the most visited article and when searching for that topic with the NE article comes as up second, on it shows up in the third place. Wikipedia is, almost always, first in the list. Other popular articles in NE are “World War I”, “Vietnam War”, “Cold War”, “Judaism”, “Islam”, “Sweden” and “USA”.

In the print world, you chose the volume in the encyclopaedic collection containing the article you were looking for. Knowing the order of the alphabet was then a key skill. The alphabet was not only crucial for the users; it was also the leading principle behind the production chronology. Work started with A and finished with Z (or in the Swedish case, “Ö”) and the first volume contained articles from AAA to ABRR. The editors recall how the production of the online encyclopaedia up until recently also mirrored that of a printed book, going from A to Z (for example, Interview with Editor 5, 28 June 2012). As discussed earlier, each editor has a high degree of individual responsibility in her or his work and the increasing workload has led to a need for prioritising. For Editor 3, with her responsibility for 26,403 articles, there is of course no chance she can devote equal time to each article. There is a need to constantly make decisions about how to weigh work in order to be effective. Or, as one editor states, “We do now work much more user focused and efficiently” (Interview with Editor 5, 28 June 2012). The computerised editorial system’s abilities to provide user statistics, together with Google analytics, have become key actors for structuring and prioritising work. Based on user statistics in relation to the statuses of articles, the editors, after a dialogue with the Editor in Chief, give certain priorities for their work. User traffic guides the work. For example, in a personal memo written in advance of a discussion with the Editor in Chief, Editor 3 lists a number of urgent issues in her work. As number three on her “to do”– list comes what is called in NE terminology the “word group” ZOOL:

3. ZOOL is a much read word group with 894 words with over 1000 hits, among 136 JR [easy versions]. I would like to pay experts to go through the animal–groups that need to be updated, and that are read a lot, first the big mammals. (Internal document 2)

Equally the countries–project has been driven by user traffic. Those countries that have been viewed most are also those that were revised first. The editor started their work with the Nordic countries and, depending on the popularity of the articles, from there on continued their updating work. “Users” have become key steering instruments. What is referred to as users are in fact representations of figures, abstract measurements of computer programs that have sent a request to NE’s server. These user logs are delivered and even interpreted via Google’s own analytics system. Google also takes the role of a backstage manager, not just that of a disciplined receptionist. Furthermore, this reliance on analytical tools for calculating priorities and structuring everything from work to representation is a significant development. It fits neatly with a general tendency towards the quantification of more or less everything, often hidden behind visualisations that society is undergoing and that certainly knowledge and knowledge cultures are increasingly structured around. We will discuss this in more detail in the following section by drawing on Tarde’s notion of aggregation.



Facts or interpretation?

During the field study at NE, the editors worked with the so–called Facts & Figures project. This project touches upon the core of how public knowledge could be produced, communicated and used in the digital era, as well as the relation between facts and interpretations in encyclopaedic knowledge. During an interview with the Editor in Chief, he explained his visions for NE (11 November 2011). He mentioned how they were loosing both private and business customers, while keeping about the same numbers of institutional customers such as schools. He said that NE had reached the point where they have accepted that they cannot compete with Wikipedia. Instead NE will try to change direction. The Facts & Figures project is the central element of that manoeuvre.

Bruno Latour, and others, have recently re–introduced the work of nineteenth century sociologist Gabriel Tarde (e.g., Latour, et al., 2012). Tarde argued, in opposition to the two dominant sociological scholars of his time — Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx — and their interest in social facts respectively structures as explanans, that all kinds of knowledge (and actually everything else as well) are results of aggregation. These aggregations can be “a code, a dictionary, an institution, or a custom” [6]. For instance, in order to unwrap how encyclopaedic knowledge is established as precisely encyclopaedic knowledge, one has to go backwards and follow the traces that led to the present, and then back again. Scientific knowledge and its expressions in journals and books is one type of aggregation. To quote Latour: “/.../ “the wonderful thing about science /.../ is that there exists — thanks to footnotes, references and citations — an almost uninterrupted set of traces /.../”” [7]. In a digital and networked world, as Latour also points out, following traces becomes almost ridiculously easy. Accordingly, Tarde (2010) makes a strong methodological claim for measuring and quantification. Yet, while Tarde lived at a time when the techniques for capturing all those kinds of quantification he wanted to make were, at most, in their infancy, at most, we are now confronted with an entirely different situation. It has become difficult to avoid being captured and almost everything is quantified. Every move we make in the digital sphere leaves traces (not least via mobile phones is this sphere rapidly expanding and intensifying) that can be (and are) aggregated, analysed and visualized: Google’s page rankings, the news feed or friend suggestions in Facebook, GPS–based services, the order of articles based on popularity in other media and the content of Wikipedia articles based on voting, to name just a few random examples. With such a perspective, what is interesting is not really whether a knowledge claim is true or not, but understanding how a claim is configured. A Tardian understanding of aggregation and of the value of quantification can be used as a filter for understanding the construction of encyclopaedic knowledge. We can see how users, as the number of server requests, steer work in certain directions, changing the rhythm of work and thus make changes in the physical space of the editorial office, or how Google rankings shape the working day of the management team and the content of articles. More literally NE, most obviously with the Facts & Figures project itself, is a part in the quantification of knowledge, a visible aggregation of data collected elsewhere into figures, facts and knowledge, providing algorithms doing interpretations with some room for users to play.

The keywords for the Facts & Figures project are semantic Web and open data (Interview with Editor in Chief 15 November 2011). The Facts & Figures project was developed side–by–side — or almost together — with the Countries project. The Editor in Chief explained how NE wants to aggregate open data and put NE’s quality stamp on it. Articles on countries have a lot of statistics, often in a separate box in the article, that are very time–consuming to update. The sources for these facts and statistics were earlier in reference books, some of them only to be found at the university library, but now to an increasing extent published as open data on the Web (Interview with Editor 1, 16 March 2012) [8]. NE wants to create a database with open data, taken from a variety of sources, such as the World Bank, Statistics Sweden or Freedom House. This data should ideally be stored and tagged so that users can handle it in simple and personalized ways. NE selects the data sources, compiles the database and provides visualization tools, and — not to forget — NE guarantees the trustworthiness of the data.

The Facts & Figures project signals a re–orientation of NE. In an interview published during the period of the material collection in the major morning paper in the region, the CEO of NE explains his vision for the company:

If TT [a Swedish news agency] is a news agency we should be able to be a facts agency, that should deliver quickly and easily. Either we sell entire packages or become wholesalers and charge for the information that the company takes. (Hansson, 2012)

The CEO was brought into the company in 2011 from the international telecommunications company Ericsson. During a few months in 2012 the editorial group was joined by a programmer who had previously worked at Gapminder [9], among other places. The new editorial member worked together with the other editors in updating country articles. At one editorial meeting the programmer presented his ideas to the editors (22 May 2012). His main message was that the data in NE must be better structured and mapped in order to be reused in several articles. He suggested that the working methods of NE are those of making “a book, which is difficult when you want to develop a tremendous ‘web–thing’”. Instead he encouraged all the editors to find sources of open data for their sections when updating countries in the Countries project. The plan was then to collect open data, to organize the data and to construct tools for its visualisation.

The increased value of quantitative knowledge together with the radical changes in handling statistics and data visualisation in a traditional humanistic endeavour, such as is that of creating an encyclopaedia, are striking. Yet, if we take Tarde’s perspective and his call for understanding knowledge as aggregation seriously, it makes perfect sense. With the digitisation of knowledge follow extremely rich possibilities for quantifying it, and increasingly practices of knowledge quantification become important. In this sense, the way the Facts & Figures project is talked about, conceptualised and planned for demonstrates an attempt by NE to become a “truly” contemporary, digital and networked encyclopaedia — not just in terms of the communication of the content, but also in how encyclopaedic knowledge is created in the first place. The &lquo;old” NE, based on carefully written articles, often by single experts and editor members, will still be there, but it will be supplemented with something else.

During the autumn of 2012, a pilot test of the Facts & Figures project was carried out at an international company (Field notes, 21 November 2012). The company wanted custom–made information on countries that combined quantitative data and visualisations of open source data with NE articles on specific countries. The service is supposed to be used for internal education and for display when welcoming international guests to the company. In this case, the Facts & Figures project fits very well with the above quotation from the CEO. At the same time, there is a divergence between different notions of encyclopaedic knowledge as analytical interpretations or as facts and also regarding where to situate knowledge production itself. When the programmer presented his proposal, one editor asked if NE should present only the data of others rather than developing its own (Field notes, 23 May 2012). The editor likely referred to the traditional way of producing knowledge, a way that privileges the individual, his or her expertise and the written text, in opposition to the open data based quantitative way, where everything is in the algorithm. In a similar spirit, another editor highlights how important he thinks it is, in contrast to producing pure facts, to “focus on telling a story in relation to facts” (Interview with Editor 4, 28 June 2012). Once again, ambivalence shapes the constellation, with respect to what the prime task of an encyclopaedia is — a pure “fact agency” or an institution providing the reader with first–hand human interpretations. In this question something else is embedded, a question of how trustworthiness is constructed — through ‘traditional’, external experts’ in–depth understanding and ability to construct a narrative, or in the (often graphic) narrative of quantitative data aggregation? This is an uncertainty over where to situate control; control over who gets a say in creating a whole from individual entities — the user or the expert? However, we argue, this is a question that remains superficial and that the question should be one about differences in expertise — who gets to compile and interpret, the programmer and her algorithms or the editor and her network of external experts?

Yet, rather than framing this divergence as a conflict, we suggest that it is a potentially productive constellation. The borders between NE and the rest of the Web are weakening when information elements are literally pulled into NE from other sources thus entering the value space of a traditional encyclopaedia, being given entirely new meanings. User log files and search statistics shape the work of editors and algorithms interpret data presenting custom–made visualisations for users (rather than readers). All this is couched in the traditional A–Z of the encyclopaedia, into hierarchies of knowledge, expert names, titles and not least a system of access control through subscriptions and institutions. The question NE might face with this is just how to open the “flow” to allow trustworthiness, which is thus created and maintained, to be re–packaged by other algorithms without loosing exactly this, trustworthiness.



Conclusion: New orders of public knowledge?

We might remember how already the physical location, as a part of NE’s spatial arrangements, of the editorial office in the new harbour area told a story of ambivalence and a split between old and new, between authenticity and gentrification. Throughout we encountered ambivalence, uncertainty, sometimes even friction, between traditional encyclopaedic knowledge and network culture. The often routine–based practices of updating articles meet ideas of project work, of open data, of algorithms and most of all of quantification. Knowledge claims about almost everything from all kinds of sources compete with each other and constantly enter new arrangements. Most noticeably, user behaviour on the Web site is calculated and used as a basis for prioritising, structuring and shaping the encyclopaedic work. The principle of the alphabet has to a certain degree been abandoned for the principle of statistical popularity. The wish to build a database on open data for NE builds also on the idea of quantification of digital knowledge (Latour, 2010; Tarde, 2010). In the first case, it is a question of quantification of users’ trajectories and in the second example it is a question of quantification of all kinds of knowledge.

Human and non–human actors, editors and databases, programmers and books, Google and the local CMS, students and Wikipedia all relate to each other and through a particular encounter their relations form Nationalencyklopedin in its various incarnations. Just as the printed format made earlier encyclopaedias into something specific, the digital and networked format of contemporary encyclopaedias makes them into something different, yet clearly related. With its user driven publishing process, Wikipedia is of course the utmost example of this, but also the professional encyclopaedias find new forms and meanings. Old trustworthiness — tied up in tradition, expertise and local relevance — gains new currency in networked settings, while the idea of knowledge as objective facts, which admittedly has been a key constituent of encyclopaedias since their inception, becomes increasingly important. Authorless, calculable (metaphorically as well as literally) open data and signed, vetted and closed narrations of knowledge meet to form an interesting form of hybrid trustworthiness, distributed and centred at the same time, just as the editorial office in Malmö’s gentrified harbour where we began. End of article


About the authors

Olof Sundin is Professor in Information Studies at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. His research interests include information practices, information literacies and new orders of public knowledge.
E–mail: olof [dot] sundin [at] kultur [dot] lu [dot] se

Jutta Haider is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Information Science at City University London, U.K. Her research interests include information practices, digital cultures and environmental information.
E–mail: jutta [dot] haider [at] kultur [dot] lu [dot] se



The authors want to thank the committed and experienced editorial team at Nationalencyklopedin. Without their openness, generosity and welcoming attitude it would not have been possible to carry out the study from which this article reports.



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Editorial history

Received 19 February 2013; accepted 23 May 2013.

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“The networked life of professional encyclopaedias: Quantification, tradition, and trustworthiness” av Olof Sundin & Jutta Haider är licensierad under en Creative Commons Erkännande–Ickekommersiell–IngaBearbetningar 3.0 Förenta Staterna licens.

The networked life of professional encyclopaedias: Quantification, tradition, and trustworthiness
by Olof Sundin and Jutta Haider.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 6 - 3 June 2013

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