Review of EE in Booklist, January 2009

Reference on the Web: Community of Enlightenment

How do reference publishers embrace the power of community without sacrificing authority? The "publish first, then filter" model familiar from Wikipedia isn't the answer, but reference publishers are finding ways to use new technologies to support a more traditional "filter first, then publish" approach. In the September 15 issue of Reference Books Bulletin, we reported on how Encyclopedia Britannica has added new features to Britannica Online to promote greater participation from its contributors and the scholarly community at large as well as members of the public using the site. Oxford’s Electronic Enlightenment provides another example of community publishing.

Robert V. McNamee, Director of the Electronic Enlightenment Project, told us, "The community model of growing content is important to the Electronic Enlightenment Project for a number of reasons. These include the disparate and different sources of possible content, the interdisciplinary nature of the content itself, and the duty of an academic project based in a major resource library to support the involvement of faculty and students." As explained on the site, there are three ways a scholar or student might contribute. New "small pieces of significant information" can fill in some some of the blanks in the biographical details, the dates of documents, and the locations (for example, the town in which a letter-writer’s street address is found). Local archives might yield a new letter or small group of letters; according to McNamee, more than 450 archives with eighteenth-century material "from Algeria to Australia, Finland to Japan, Russia to the United States" have been identified. Finally, several electronic editions of correspondence are now in the process of being edited and will be added to the site. All contributions will be vetted and credited. The first step for anyone interested in being part of the community is to send an e-mail — no wikis here but, rather, an editorial gatekeeping not generally found in the "publish first, then filter" world.

McNamee says, "I see the community model as not only important but highly beneficial and the natural way of growing content in online resources in the future; and it is because we see it as so important that we have made it a key element of our plans for the future of the project." It will be interesting to watch how Electronic Enlightenment's model makes this living, breathing resource evolve and to see whether it is adopted for other reference databases.

— Mary Ellen Quinn
© 2009 by American Library Association

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