Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What's new at The Canadian Encyclopedia?

Maybe it was a mistake to dispose of all my
hard copy editions
I recently got a message urging me to "check out the Canadian Encyclopedia's new look." Well, I did, but I'm not in love with the new look.

The Encyclopedia's home screen used to feature, front and centre, a very large Search box. The concept resembled that of the internet's dominant site, Google, which long has featured an almost wordless screen (okay, plus the Google doodle) with a large, dominating "Search" box at centre. I have used the Canadian Encyclopedia -- with the similar Search feature it used to have, regularly. I find the CE can often enough take a reader to Canadian materials not readily available elsewhere.

Now the Encyclopedia's "Search" option has been reduced to a small-print item in an upper corner of the home screen.  Most of the screen is now given over to newsy stories about topics the editors think you should read about. No doubt some consultant has told them that looking like an online newspaper will be good for the CE's visitor statistics. If so, maybe they have to go that way. But an online encyclopedia's world is vast. It should be asking what in that world you want to know, not telling you what it thinks you should know. Google knows something when it sticks with its plain-vanilla home screen. (True, the Google app on my phone is always trying -- rather amateurishly -- to offer me news headlines it thinks I need, but so far the Google web page retains its austere self.)

Now I have a second doubt about the ever-expanding Canadian Encyclopedia.  While there recently, I found myself looking for the first time in years at its entry "Louisbourg" which I contributed to the original print Canadian Encyclopedia and for which I am still the credited author. In those print days, line space was precious. I was limited to (I think) a thousand words. But space is not a problem for an online encyclopedia; today's Louisbourg entry includes much of my text, but now it goes on for pages.

More is better, no? Except the new material offers little of value and includes a lot of drivel. There is nothing new that draws on years of ongoing research about the 18th century French Atlantic, nothing about the last 30 years of challenges and developments at the reconstructed fortress (and town of Louisbourg).  Instead readers are offered hoary old claims about the fortress having been "thought to be impregnable," about how its purpose was to "guard the gateway to the St. Lawrence," about how it was so expensive that Louis XV was "said to have remarked" he would see its walls rising over the horizon at Versailles, and so on.

These are legends. They were created in the 19th and early 20th century by patriotic anglophile writers in Canada and New England, eager to set up the moralizing conclusion that New France was fortunate to have been conquered and put on the right path. All have long been discredited. (The construction of Louisbourg cost France about as much as maintaining a naval ship at sea. Its fortifications guarded itself and not the distant Gulf.  If any impregnable place had ever been created, war would have come to a stop long ago. Et cetera.)

None of these lazy, misleading "colour" items would have had much chance of being included in the original Canadian Encyclopedia under James Marsh and his staff of editing professionals. I see, however, CE still credits me as the principal author of the Louisbourg article (and oddly, many other articles I had nothing at all to do with, mostly on Canadian music!)

Update, October 24:  Professor Michael Cross shares his experience:
I second your concerns about the new version of the Canadian Encyclopedia. It is a curious, indeed dubious and misleading, practice to alter, extend or rewrite authors’ entries without consulting those authors. I tried to make this point to the Encyclopedia directly but their message form did not work. Apparently, despite their protestations, they do not really want to hear comments.

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