The Encyclopedist’s Art


Philip W. (“Tom”) Goetz

In the twentieth century, encyclopedists have not been the only people to worry about how to facilitate access to an ever-growing sum of knowledge. The problem arising from the information explosion of modern times was also noticed by those who helped create it. In particular, the scientists and mathematicians who had created whole new disciplines of knowledge, such as atomic physics and computing machines, had also begun to think about how to increase efficient access by their colleagues and lay people to growing domains of information. Since the mission of an encyclopedia is to encompass in an abbreviated and accessible form all of our knowledge about everything, the editorial investments needed to create encyclopedias have always been substantial. As a result, the number of encyclopedias has always been relatively few.

Mortimer Adler (with cane), Editor Philip W. “Tom” Goetz (with red bow tie) with Britannica’s officers and wives, Christmas 1990

Also, while there are several thousand distinguished outside contributors asked to write articles for an encyclopedia such as the Britannica (4,455 recently), there is a much smaller number of career encyclopedists charged with the actual design and creation of the work and its ongoing revision.

In the modern era, professional encyclopedists around the world working continuously in the English language have mostly numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands. And for over two centuries, the encyclopedists at Britannica have remained the most skilled and respected of their breed. The task of a full- time encyclopedist is an odd one. There are not many of these folks around, and the few that are around tend to spend their days in single-minded thought on how best to organize a brief, narrative summary of our cumulative understandings of history, art, literature, science, religion, philosophy, and culture.

Oddly enough, given the physical and cost constraints of a print encyclopedia, the encyclopedist’s art was traditionally more focused on  what to leave out, rather than what to put in.

During my 28-year tenure at Britannica, I had the privilege of working frequently with EB’s Editor for much of that time, Philip W. (“Tom”) Goetz.  He had been promoted to Editor well before the day I arrived in 1986.  He had been the second-in-command Executive Editor during the development of the 15th Edition.  When I once asked him about what that period was like, he said it was the toughest job he ever had to slog through.  The complete rewriting of the 14th Edition had begun in the 1950s and the 15th Edition wasn’t published until 1974.  During that time, Goetz said that, to insure the entire corpus of over 30 million words had editorial consistency and “spoke with one voice,” he was detailed to be the one person to read and give final approval to all of the  44 million words in the 65,000 articles in the complete set of 32 volumes, with each volume having more than 1,000 pages.

Tom was possessed of an exceptional intellect and engaging manner and he never forgot a lot of what he had read, either.  Once, when we had a problem with the development of an Italian translation of Encyclopaedia Britannica, I travelled with him to Milan.  Arriving on a weekend, we decided to check the common tourist box of visiting the Milan Cathedral.  I was particularly anxious to see it as my mother had taken a snapshot of the church on her honeymoon in 1928.  Milan CathedralBegun in 1386 it had been added to and refined over the next six centuries.  To take in the exceptional view of Milan from the top of the Cathedral, we climbed the 250 steps to the Duomo roof.  As we strolled amongst the marble forest of statues and gargoyles, Tom had been filling me in on aspects of the Cathedral’s construction.  When I asked him what had been going on in the Catholic Church at the time of construction and the years immediately following, my casual question did not elicit a casual answer.  It was all in his head and he poured it out to me in excruciating detail for the next hour, formulated in perfect paragraph-like sections.  It was an amazing and thorough education for me. While it had been completely casual for him to speak off the cuff as he did, he spoke with the command of a specialist university professor who might have spent their entire career studying and lecturing on the Middle Ages.