Written by Naja Bentzen,
At a time when information is easily manipulated for ideological and/or economic purposes, emotions often trump evidence, while trust in institutions, expertise and mainstream media is declining. Against this backdrop, public access to sources of trustworthy general interest knowledge – such as national online encyclopaedias – plays an increasingly important role: Reliable background information about history, culture, society and politics can help people navigate the often confusing ocean of information that surrounds us daily.
Whereas Europe has produced and exported knowledge for millennia, our current online encyclopaedia landscape is heterogeneous. As the EPRS in-depth analysis (IDA) on Europe’s online encyclopaedias: Equal access to knowledge of general interest? shows, not all Europeans are able to access reliable information and knowledge directly from online encyclopaedias, in their own language today.
Looking at language communities both within and beyond the European Union, EPRS found that English speakers generally have no shortage of access to general interest knowledge. However, a number of language communities in Europe have very limited access to reliable sources of such knowledge, creating a gap between well-educated people who can use English-language sources and the large groups who do not have such language skills (some 46 % of Europeans do not speak a foreign language well enough to hold a conversation).
Some countries, however, are making active efforts to ensure public access to general interest knowledge. In addition to serving the public need for knowledge, the online presence of reliable sources in a given language also contributes to the survival of that language, ensuring that its speakers will continue to have a voice in the future.
Norway and Latvia are two examples of language communities providing free access to a national online encyclopaedia. The editors-in-chief of these encyclopaedias presented their models at a roundtable discussion in the Library Reading Room on 20 February 2018, and Naja Bentzen (External Policies Unit, Members’ Research Service, EPRS) presented the key findings of the above-mentioned IDA.
Opening the event, Etienne Bassot, Director of the EPRS Members’ Research Service, underlined the importance of boosting our ‘cognitive resilience’ in the post-truth era, highlighting the role that public access to general interest knowledge can play to help people navigate in today’s complex information environment.
In her introduction, Sandra Kalniete (EPP, Latvia) emphasised the difference in quality between the Latvian encyclopaedia published in independent Latvia between the World Wars, and the later, censored and ideologically-biased content of the 1980s Latvian Soviet encyclopaedia. Against this backdrop, and amid the current pressure on Europe’s information ecosystem, Kalniete stressed the great importance of reliability in online encyclopaedias, welcoming what she called the ‘very timely’ EPRS IDA on online encyclopaedias.
Jesús Carmona (head of the Citizens Policies Unit, Members’ Research Service, EPRS) moderated the debate.
A long-term vision for Latvian knowledge: Nacionālā enciklopēdija
Valters Ščerbinskis, editor-in-chief of Latvia’s Nacionālā enciklopēdija, gave an overview of the recent history of encyclopaedias in Latvia and the ongoing work towards launching an all-new Latvian national encyclopaedia. In 2014, Latvia’s Ministry of Culture took the decision to develop a national encyclopaedia. One year later, the vision, principles and methodological approach were in place, and the editorial office became operational. Latvia’s Nacionālā enciklopēdija will launch at a special event on 18 December 2018 in Riga, in the context of the centenary celebrations of Latvia’s independence.
As part of the National Library of Latvia, the Nacionālā enciklopēdija has an educational objective; meeting the public’s quest for knowledge. In addition, a cultural objective is to ensure the survival and development of the Latvian language: only with a solid online presence can a (small) language guarantee its sustainability and long-term survival.
In addition to the security dimension — which addresses the need for easily accessible and trustworthy sources of information for the widest audience possible — the entertainment aspect is also crucial: many people enjoy surfing encyclopaedias. In other words, knowledge is fun!
Ščerbinskis explained that the new Latvian National Encyclopaedia will be universal (containing knowledge of general interest), authored by academics, and published electronically, using modern technology and design. It is state-owned and receives approximately €200 000 in annual financial support from Latvia’s Ministry of Culture.
Creating and maintaining an encyclopaedia is a long-term process. Ščerbinskis highlighted that the long-term impact on society requires a long-term vision.
The Great Norwegian Encyclopedia: embodying ‘dugnad‘
In his presentation of the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia (Store Norske Leksikon, SNL), Erik Bolstad used the Norwegian word ‘dugnad‘ – work done as a community or collective – to signify the SNL’s work, aiming to secure public access to verified knowledge. The SNL is published by the Foreningen Store Norske Leksikon association, and is co-owned by 14 organisations and non-profit organisations, including Norway’s universities, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, as well as the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
According to Bolstad, the SNL is the only national encyclopaedia in the world that has survived digitalisation with an open access model, updated content and high user statistics. Its website is the second largest non-commercial website in Norway, with 200 000 unique visitors per day. The project is publicly funded and available to everyone, and its articles often make it to the very top of Google’s search results.
Unlike Wikipedia, SNL requires its contributors to use their full name and encourages them to supply their biographies, including background and qualifications. Although all users can contribute, their contributions will only go online following assessment by an assigned topic expert. SNL’s assigned topic experts can also submit content directly on the website, and this is only reviewed by other SNL editors once it has already been published online. The revision history is publicly accessible.
The SNL contains 200 000 articles, divided into 3 600 categories. With an annual budget of €1.8 million, the staff is composed of 10 editors, and there are 700 topic experts. In addition, some 1 300 people contribute to the articles.
Challenges and opportunities for Europe’s national online encyclopaedias
Against the backdrop of the current pressure on Europe’s knowledge ecosystem – including the undermining of facts, knowledge, science and expertise – how can we best boost our European ‘knowledge tribes’ and ensure that everyone has access to reliable general interest knowledge?
Lively discussion of these questions continued even after the Library event had ended, and there was a general feeling that a seed had been planted for new visions of the potential for future exchange of ideas and experience among national online encyclopaedias in Europe.
Knowledge is power: Europe’s online national encyclopaedias and the concept of ‘dugnad‘ (which also exists in a number of other European languages, apart from Norwegian*) to gather and share collective knowledge have the potential to enlighten people both in and beyond Europe, empowering them to find their way through the maze of information available in the digital age.
Finland Swedish: talko
Russian: толока (toloka)