The encyclopedia genre has played a significant role in the digital world. Even before the World Wide Web, encyclopedias were among the most successful products of the CD-ROM interim. Microsoft’s Encarta was the prime example (though it was a second-rate text licensed, not created, by the software giant), while World Book and others sold hundreds of thousands of copies to schools. Our own Canadian Encyclopedia appeared throughout the 1990s and was successful in retail as well as schools and libraries.
This success of CD-ROM was partly owing to two primary causes, I think. First was storage, as entire works of thousands of pages of print could be stuffed onto a single CD-ROM. This was at a time when the cost of paper was making the reprinting of multi-volume works prohibitive. Secondly, there was the search engine. There is so much more information in a reference work than can ever be covered in an index, and with a good search engine, everything in the text could be found. But CD-ROM did not last. In fact there was too little storage space when it came to adding multimedia. Before DVD could replace CDs, the World Wide Web came along.
Encyclopedias have proven even more successful on the Web than on CD-ROM. Arguments about whether or not Wikipedia qualifies as a traditional encyclopedia aside, the Web is home to innumerable encyclopedias, helping to make sense of the millions of answers to a single question in Google. It is easier to go straight to Wikipedia than to page down through hundreds of results. Our own encyclopedia is well used for Canadian information with up to 900,000 visitors per month.
Enough time has passed with our online presence, with what is essentially still a book version transported online, that we have been asking questions about how we can expand the idea of what an encyclopedia can be in the new environment. More on this elsewhere on this site, but for now The Canadian Encyclopedia is excited to have launched its first iPhone app. Last March we launched a mobile version of The Canadian Encyclopedia, which is quite widely used, but it is not an app.
Our staff and our developers have kicked around numerous ideas – too many, really – about what an encyclopedia app might be. For now, we have settled on expanding and transforming the information we provide on Canadian cities—one of the most important and widely used topics in The Canadian Encyclopedia. We decided to focus on history in situ and on telling interesting stories that give users a sense of time, a possibility completely impossible in a book encyclopedia. Because of its mobile aspect—telling the stories as you stand in the places where they happened—impossible online as well.
We are not exactly sure what the origins of this app were. I think it started in my own mind as more of an historical guide, but our developers at 7th Floor Media persuaded us to move more towards storytelling and then to link to more conventional information from those stories.* My own staff were highly skeptical of this direction, preferring that we concentrate more on a comprehensive Canadian Encyclopedia app. Perhaps, like most young people, they were being skeptical of any interest in history. However, as the app unfolded in a unique design, with a cool “then and now” visual transformation through time, and as almost everyone we showed it to repeated the “cool” encomium, we grew enthusiastic. Seeing the links to the mobile version of The Canadian Encyclopedia for “more information” satisfied my urge to add a serious “encyclopedic” aspect to the app.
Of course we see this Vancouver app as only the beginning, with plans well underway to create a Toronto app, with Ottawa, Montreal and others to follow. It is my hope that users will explore the stories from cities other than their own—we are really ignorant in Canada of the richness not only of our own history, but even more of the history elsewhere. I had people tell me in Vancouver that Toronto would be infertile ground for such an app, as it has very little history! It is an understandable point of view as really, our city developers have gone out of their way to destroy our physical heritage. We hope to recover some of that, at least virtually.
We are also planning to add an Android version and possibly RIM and iPad as well. We are just getting our feet wet, but already realize that we must build in an interactive aspect, in which people can comment, share photos and ultimately their own stories. If we can help build awareness of our stories, based on location, and get people involved in sharing their history, we think it a worthy expansion and an exciting new direction for what a modern encyclopedia can provide.
*We are very grateful for the guidance, persuasion and great work of our developer 7th Floor Media: Noni Mate for management, Daniel Sheinin for programming, Dennis Smith for the stories and photographs, and Moragh Goshinmon for the design. Daniel Francis was the source for many of the stories.