Encyclopedias & American Studies

Editor’s Note:  This is the first in a series of EAS Internet Forums on topics of general interest to American Studies scholars and students.  We seek to unite scholarly discussion with discussion of public scholarship and teaching, and we welcome suggestions for future forum topics.  We begin with a discussion of the encyclopedia in relation to American Studies, featuring three editors of encyclopedias;  this is followed by an invited comment by Michael Cowan, a former president of the ASA and long interested in these matters. M.O.

Simon J. Bronner (The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg), Editor, Encyclopedia of American Folklife
David A. Gerstner (City University of New York), Editor, The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture
Miles Orvell (Temple University), Editor, Encyclopedia of American Studies
Michael Cowan (University of California, Santa Cruz)

1. Give us a sense, first, of the scope and purpose of your encyclopedia.

MO:  The Encyclopedia of American Studies appeared in 2001 as a print reference in four volumes and has been online since 2003,  updated and expanded annually.  It’s accessible through the American Studies website and is published now by Johns Hopkins University Press.  We expand the database annually, and presently we’ve got about 700 articles, long and short.  The EAS covers the entire gamut of American culture and history, from coast to coast, from low to high, from discovery to the present.  Given the infinity of topics, we amalgamated thousands of possible discrete articles into broader, synthetic ones, while keeping a fair number of shorter specific titles (e.g., Barbie Dolls, Coca Cola, Emerson).  The key to the EAS is to approach topics from an American Studies perspective, looking not to duplicate the kind of entry you’d find in a specialized encyclopedia, but to provide an interdisciplinary, cultural perspective.

SB:  The Encyclopedia of American Folklife is a four-volume, 1500-page, A-Z reference,  covering American folk groups and communities, and the customs, lore, and symbols that characterize these groups.  Its distinction among other folkloristic and American Studies reference works is that it is the first encyclopedia focusing on the social and material traditions of America’s diverse folk groups, from the Amish to Zydeco.  After an initial printing in 2006, it has been available online since 2009 as part of a reference work package of American studies called Sharpe Online.

DG:  The brief for The Routledge Encyclopedia of Queer Culture was to consider lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (lgbt) culture as it takes shape beyond the borders of a UK-US-driven model. In other words, we (myself and the publisher) considered this move because much of the way lgbt culture has been historicized and theorized, especially through the academic enterprise, has been through a particular dominant lens. Given this, the very terms—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender—became problematic. We opted for ‘queer’ given the range of possibilities it offered when discussing matters of sexual identity. Of course, ‘queer’ raises another set of problems and limitations. Nonetheless, the aim was to take note of international cultural production across queer cultures.

2.  How do you see the enterprise of building an encyclopedia in relationship to the field of American Studies?

MO:  In terms of its construction, the EAS tries to cover the widest possible range of subjects, from Agriculture to Technology, from the Arts to Business;  but it also tends to concentrate its attention on areas that mirror the ongoing interests of the field today—e.g ethnic studies and African American studies.  In treating any given topic, the approach we’re aiming at reproduces the disciplinary dialogue, allowing for a description of disputes and differing views.  And too, the EAS tries to act as a kind of authoritative source, an arbiter, by offering articles about American Studies itself that serve to define the field, through approaches, or key figures, or theories of culture.  Knowing that we’re not going to find universal agreement, we try, for some topics, to arrange for more than one perspective on major points, complementary and even differing perspectives, so that the reader can gain a solid footing but also a sense of the shifting terrain of the field.  EAS articles provide an authoritative starting point for further inquiry, functioning as overviews, ways of framing the field, opening up further inquiry,  and tracking the dynamic evolution of the field through updated bibliographies.

SB:  American Studies involves, as is often drummed into students’ heads, “seeing things whole” or giving the “big picture.”  The beginnings of the American Studies movement featured sweeping concerns for exploring vernacular sources of American culture such as Ralph Henry Gabriel’s The Pageant of America (1925-26) and Constance Rourke’s American Humor (1931).  More directly, the genesis of the folklife encyclopedia can be traced to my experience as assistant to Richard Dorson at Indiana University who was one of the first Ph.D.s in American Studies coming out of Harvard and who was working on an encyclopedia of American regional culture at the time of his death of 1981.

A theory of culture is implied in this kind of work that surveys everyday practice and shows expressive traditions crucial to forming multilayered, overlapping identities in a complex society such as the United States. Rather than a notion of culture inherited from ancient sources or defined by elite tastes, culture in this encyclopedia and American Studies suggests a constructiveness and agency to it, and the task of Americanist contributors to the encyclopedia is to define the process and context of construction and the outcomes.  A central theme and message of this encyclopedia is that Americans participate simultaneously in many forms of folklife at the national and local levels, whether by age, from cradle to grave; by gender, as men and women; by region and environment, from country to city; by occupation, from sailors and taxi drivers to loggers and miners; by ethnicity and religion, from the early Puritans to the latest refugee communities; and by organization, from family and school to company and club. Aware that America is often imagined as the land of the novel and modern, I see this work as testifying to the significance of tradition in the daily lives of Americans as well as the dynamism of American society and culture generally.

DG:  When David S. Azzolina reviewed the collection in Library Journal he opened his remarks with: “Queer studies does not lend itself to the production of encyclopedias. Its self-definition hinges on its core concept, queerness, which will always be a moving target.” Fortunately, he went on to describe the work a “success” precisely because the book serves as an “on-the-ground reference” that librarians need in their everyday work. Since American Studies has (rightly I think) broadened its scholarly and pedagogical impulses toward an international perspective, the Queer Encyclopedia serves to open research agendas along these lines. Encyclopedias are points of departure and not, by any means, the final word on a subject.  (In theory, then, this work suggests that queer is a moving target.) My hope is that my encyclopedia allows scholars to rethink such US-centric notions that Stonewall is somehow the origin of “the” gay movement. Such an event may be all well and true, but for queers in India and China, Stonewall has little to do with their lives.

3.  How does the organization of knowledge in your field relate to the organization of the encyclopedia itself?  Where and how do you draw the boundary line for what your encyclopedia will cover?  And how does this relate to the “discipline” or field that the encyclopedia parallels?

MO:  In a sense the EAS is, by definition, synonymous with the field of American Studies, or tries to represent the totality of the field.  But what is the field?  How unitary is it?  After all, “American Studies” is visible in several different, sometimes complementary institutional and academic manifestations:  you could see the field, for example, in the curricula of American Studies programs, as it’s taught across the country and the world.  But curricula tend to vary quite a bit from place to place, reflecting regional interests, faculty interests, local resources, as well as a common core of agreed subjects.  Another view of what “American Studies” is could be found in the pages of American Quarterly and the many other American Studies journals, where the edges of research are being extended in a variety of directions, often grouped around broad themes that sometimes overlap with the teaching of American Studies, but are often more specialized.  Or one could see “American Studies” in the somewhat more diverse range of subjects published and labelled by presses “American Studies”—books that are often breaking open new areas of inquiry that might eventually find their way into the classroom.  Or you might find “American Studies” in the annual ASA conference, or in the regional conferences, or in international AS conferences, which often focus on broad (and changing) themes from year to year.  There’s certainly some overlapping among these various manifestations, but these are not necessarily congruent pictures of American Studies.  The encyclopedia tries, you might say, to put the largest possible frame around all of these pictures, to encompass the largest set of what might be thought of as “American Studies.” 

SB:  By referring to “folk” life, I drew attention to purported divisions between levels of culture: folk, popular, and elite. Readers might assume that the folk in this encyclopedia are othered or isolated, lower class, or even illiterate and remote, but I gave attention to American groups that could be called integrated, even elite, and genres that seem at once popular and elite. The scholarly task was to show that what people assume are divisions constitute a process inherent in American culture. Rather than viewing folk, popular, and elite in a vertical ladder form with folk at the bottom and elite at the top, I suggested a structure of an unfolding fan in which folk, popular, and elite threads run horizontally through culture. Sure, I included several entries on the Amish, but I also put in Boy Scouts, Little League Baseball, and Students. I had entries on prisoners and firefighters, but also included, twelve-step groups, youth gangs, and heavy metal fans (not to be confused with the separate entry on extreme metal fans). As for genres, I had games and toys, which you might expect, but also had roadside shrines and the Internet.

As for geographic boundaries, the emphasis was on the United States, but coverage included U.S. territories of Guam and Samoa and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and entries frequently crossed national borders to cover groups whose cultures drew from, or affected, those of Canada, Mexico, and island countries in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific. In addition, entries on ethnic groups included historical comparisons with homeland cultures and contemporary transnational relationships.

I included entries on ethnological theory and method that relate to American Studies such as “function and functionalism,” “symbol and structure,” “tradition and culture,” and “community and group” in addition to the more methodological “ethnography and fieldwork,” “oral and folk history,” “atlas,” and “performance approach and dramatic arts.”

DG:  I second Miles’s response, especially in relationship to the EAS as a frame “to encompass the largest set” of possibilities in the field. The issue of ‘organizing’ queer is already a troublesome strategy but one I announced as such and moved forward from there. The shifting terrain glbtq-queer studies goes with—as it were—the territory. As in any discipline the debates and concepts are wide-ranging, particularly when one considers the multiple ways sexuality and gender is lived around the world. Since the political stakes differ greatly, the way glbtq-studies is taught, researched, and put into practice varies from place to place. As far as possible, the encyclopedia remained cognizant of these diverse situations and included their cultural experiences.

4.  How does an encyclopedia, with its codification and categorization of knowledge, function in an evolving and dynamic field? How can we offer generalizations in an intellectual climate that espouses situational knowledge and the diversity and specificity of experience?

SB:  The encyclopedic enterprise often comes into conflict with the contemporary scholarly tendency to focus in on the case rather than generalize or give an overview.  The encyclopedia as I reflect now on the experience is to encourage findings. So often in other formats, I read points that the writer states are “interesting” or a local situation worth noticing. Yet the encyclopedic meaning of a “circle of knowledge” is an encompassing one that urges summative statements of patterns. I would propose that contemporary scholarship has avoided such statements even though I believe they are integral to the scholarly enterprise.  In the publishing genre of scholarly non-fiction, I would propose that the encyclopedia is increasingly emerging as a prime location for summation left out of the conventional dissertation-driven monograph.
MO:  Yes, picking up on Simon’s point,  there’s a sense in which any encyclopedia is waiting for a certain consensus to emerge—of what’s important—before committing itself to an article.  That process tends to speed up year by year, and the EAS tries to keep up with new areas of interest and new approaches.  But the function of an encyclopedia article is not so much to present original research (though that’s someitmes the case), but to assess the value of new research.  Articles are based on secondary research, on scholarship, so there has to be a body of work to begin with;  but we also want our authors to take a position on what’s happening—to summarize, but also to evaluate, to define, to offer views that are in some way “responsible” to the field. 

DG:  While I agree that the encyclopedia’s role is to present a discipline’s breadth or, as Simon refers to it, “summative statements,” I don’t want to suggest that these statements are meant to delimit a discipline once and for all. From a queer perspective the general is always in play precisely because the particulars—content and form—give new life to a field. This interplay between the general and particular, in other words, keeps at bay a “monumentalizing” effect. When James Baldwin made his way to Hollywood and was commissioned to write the screenplay for Malcolm X’s biopic he found himself trapped by Hollywood’s limitation to create a generic narrative that summed up Malcolm X’s life. To avoid monumentalizing X Baldwin proposed an experimental screenplay which, of course, Hollywood rejected. When asked about his experience about this screenplay, Baldwin responded that had he written a screenplay to meet Hollywood’s interests he would have been “party to a second assassination.” With this in mind, the encyclopedia-project necessitates a malleability of form and content.

5.  How does the organization of the encyclopedia relate to the communication of knowledge, and how is access a function of the medium (i.e. print, internet, etc.)

SB:  Students tell me that the encyclopedia organizes their research by giving them a place to begin. In a manageable unit, they should absorb the basic ideas and scope of the subject, note sources for advanced work, and find cross-references to related work. Many users want to end their exploration or citation for papers with the encyclopedia entry, but our job as scholar-teachers is to indicate the trajectories they need to take from there. The Internet definitely opens such trajectories with hypertext formats and added potential for visual sources. Frankly, this is especially crucial because student culture does not lodge in the library as it once did. Students and users want electronic access from home.  This desire for remote access creates tensions in the business of knowledge because of the costs involved for libraries to carry the array of digital products. At the same time, users may lose out on the still essential enlightening experience of browsing through a print source that a search engine and reader formats struggle to emulate.

DG: I was pleased to see that the Queer Encyclopedia—a print volume—is cited in a number of monographs that deal with sexuality in areas such as Middle-Eastern studies as well as non-English speaking works. With this said, I agree with Simon that electronic access is now essential since students no longer “lodge” in libraries. Students and indeed professional scholars are mobile and thus seek information on the spot. At this point, however, the legal hurdles around issues of copyright, intellectual property, and so forth are incubating quickly; one hopes, however, deliberately.

MO:  In the print version of the EAS, articles are arranged alphabetically, which is a convenient device for finding information, but bears no relation to the structure of knowledge.  To see the structure, you would need to look at the “Synoptic Table of Contents,” which is printed at the end of the last volume, and there you would see articles that relate to one another grouped together under the same rubric—e.g. Material Culture Studies, Law and Culture, National Identity, Religious Culture, etc.  In print also, you can see articles on closely related subjects physically grouped together following an “overview” article—whether it’s Architecture, or Photography, or Women’s Movement, or many other such general areas.  Then of course you have a lot of articles that don’t get bundled in this way and that are simply available alphabetically. 

With the internet, the linear material structure of the encyclopedia is obliterated, though you can still see the vestige of that form if you view the articles in an alphabetical list, or under a limited number of browsing categories.  But of course on the internet you don’t move from one article to another in alphabetical order. Instead, you jump wherever you want,  with anything available almost immediately as a hyperlink.  You can search on the internet by key word, which will turn up a whole list of articles containing that word or phrase;  or you can start with one article and then go to “Related Articles,” which are hyperlinked.  The instantaneity of access, the speed of movement, allow for the rapid gathering of information, and almost a decontextualization of information, particularly if you are hunting down a phrase from one article to another and jumping to the “highlights” to find it. 

Of course visual images are also more abundant and more readily accessed in the internet version of the EAS; and we’re aiming to incorporate other types of related materials (documents, images, sound clips, films) as we continue to build the database.  The internet is an extraordinary format for an encyclopedia just because it allows for this immediate access to illustrations in all media, allowing the user to grasp concretely some of the underlying abstractions that the articles want to present.  In that sense it’s a perfect medium for intellectual inquiry, supported by sensory experience.

6.  How does the scholarly encyclopedia hold its own in the face of Wikipedia and other internet resources? What is the function of “authority” in the new internet environment?

SB:  The scholarly encyclopedia needs to establish (1) authority, (2) detail, and (3) a conceptual frame that will distinguish it from open source information such as Wikipedia and Answers.com. A key, I believe, is the willingness in scholarly encyclopedias to be interpretative as well as informative, particularly with the scholarly formation of statements of pattern I mentioned earlier. Another key goes beyond the individual entries to the work as a whole. An entry on consumerism in the Encyclopedia of American Studies should be valuable, and distinct, from a wiki that purports to give “just the facts” and represents a process of consensus.  Perhaps then the scholarly encyclopedia will hold its own by continuing to relativize knowledge, instead of relegating it to units or bytes. It can dwell more in ideas, even unpopular ones, that circulate in relation to the explanation of phenomena we categorize as American culture.

DG Although I agree that “The scholarly encyclopedia needs to establish (1) authority, (2) detail, and (3) a conceptual frame that will distinguish it from open source information such as Wikipedia and Answers.com,” I also believe that given the easy access to such sources as Wikipedia it is necessary to stress, especially for students and for those involved in the peer-review process, that Wikipedia and other such venues are not acceptable as the only source.  I say this because, at times, Wikipedia does contain substantive entries and gives something more than “just the facts.” But I reiterate (and this holds true for any source, whether online or in print): scholars must necessarily and thoroughly research their subject. Internet information is but one additional source to be considered, utilized, and critiqued.

MO:  A couple of years ago, we did a count of articles in EAS that are also in Wikipedia, and we discovered that about 20% of EAS articles are not in Wikipedia—articles, for example, on American Studies as a field, on aspects of African American culture, Asian American culture,  Latino culture, on the idea of America, on American charracter, on Nativism, the Nuclear Age, Popular Literature, and so forth.  Of course Wikipedia keeps growing daily, hourly, so these things may be added even as we speak.  But in general, Wikipedia entries are enormously rich in particulars and less strong in the synthetic approaches.  Another key difference is length:  Wikipedia articles are not “measured” editorially according to their relative importance, so you often find pieces that are quite detailed, sometimes excessively detailed, and sometimes there’s a confusion between forest and trees.  EAS articles, we hope, try to configure knowledge in a way that allows for relative weight, relative importance, a balance of detail and generalization, a distinction between forest and trees.  And the final difference—EAS authors are chosen for their recognized expertise in a field, and articles are more consistently vetted.  Because of its vast database, Wikipedia is a marvelous container of information, but requires extreme caution on the part of the user that is not always present.  Wikipedia came on the scene after the EAS was formulated, but now that it’s here, it’s tempting to fashion the EAS, more deliberately,  as a resource that does what Wikipedia cannot do—create a landscape of authoritative scholarly synthesis.  Having said that, we are also thinking of ways to learn from Wikipedia, to learn from the whole wiki idea, that allows the online resource to incorporate the user in a variety of ways into the collectively created database.  This is an area we’re continuing to work on, conceptually and practically.

General Comments

MO:  As Miles, Simon, and David have acutely suggested, encyclopedias are simultaneously epistemological, technological, economic, social, and ideological enterprises.  As such, they must negotiate a series of tensions or at least a series of diverse goals that may not be fully congruent.  I’ll comment below on only a few of these points of negotiation.

One area of negotiation is between what might be called an encyclopedia’s utopian impulses and its practical agendas.  In its utopian impulses, an encyclopedia aspires to present an entire world of knowledge (even if a world limited by various parameters such as nation-in-context, folkness, or queerness) in a coherent form—coherent at least in the sense that every item in the encyclopedia coheres to some degree to the overall framework and rationale of the larger project.  In practice, as the three editors point out, that world can be represented only partially, however self-consciously limited the frame, partly because of the plentitude of materials within the frame—materials that can never be fully represented—and partly because conceptions of the frame itself keep changing and themselves are subject to on-going debate.  Framing terms like “American,” “folk,” and “queer” are themselves, as the editors suggest, contested terms.  The projects must thus navigate, never with more than partial success, what the editors variously term a “shifting terrain” and a “moving target.”  Extraordinarily difficult editorial choices have to be made about what to include and what to exclude and, of what’s included, how much to include. 

Those choices are not free of bottom-line economic factors, even when the immense powers of computers and the internet are brought to bear.  Like other publications, encyclopedias must pay their way.  Along with their other vital functions, they are, as Simon aptly puts it, in the “business of information.”  Even the immensely welcome on-going revisions of such publications made possible by the digital revolution are far from cost-free even if more cost-effective.  Publishers usually want to do more than break even.  David has acknowledged this as a constraint on the size of his volume, which is pioneering in a rapidly emerging field whose potential materials far exceed what it was fiscally possible for him to tap.  Even encyclopedias sponsored by non-profit associations must keep a sharp eye on costs as well as on the value of the venture to the associations’ members, as do their for-profit publishers.  The subventions provided by association members’ dues underpin the larger size and scope of Miles’ and Simon’s projects.  All three count on library purchase and/or libraries’ subscriptions to on-line versions.  Equally crucial is the dependence of each encyclopedia on the pro bono labor of editorial boards, along with the good will of contributors, whose modest remuneration inevitably falls short of the time and expertise they bring to their authorship.  The three editors’ own extraordinary under-compensated contributions have of course been crucial to their respective projects’ success.

Also subject to negotiation is an encyclopedia’s claim,  on the hand, to be to some extent “definitive” and “authoritative”—to serve as reliable summaries or “overviews” of what is known currently about a field as a whole and about the materials and issues within that field—and, on the other hand,  its desire that the summaries be seen also as “starting points” or “points of departure.”  The editors want their individual articles to be satisfying to, say, a student searching for a paper topic or a reference librarian trying to answer a patron’s question about a civil rights march or Boy Scout rituals or an Israeli lesbian writer—but not too satisfying.  They want their articles to stimulate readers’ curiosity, to set them on a path of further exploration via bibliographic citations and links to other articles, while recognizing that many readers are likely to search no further.  The editors understand that their products must they satisfy all sorts of users, appeal to diverse motives.  Perhaps encyclopedias are most successful when they create conditions for serendipity, when users find not only what they’re looking for and discover a surprise or two as a bonus.

One often-deployed tactic to stimulate curiosity is debate.  The encyclopedias must negotiate the desire to be authoritative and the desire to effectively incorporate substantial debate—debate that will both reflect the lively controversies characteristic of the fields themselves and stimulate users to take account of those debates in their own thinking.  The debates in encyclopedias are often muted because differing perspectives are typically included not in a single article but in separate articles on topics that may not seem immediately related or mutually relevant.  Juxtaposing such articles through various means (clustering, cross-referencing, hyperlinking, and so forth) may be the most common means deployed by these encyclopedias to highlight contested topics.  Perhaps, as these projects undergo updating, the commissioning of more articles explicitly focused on major debates within the field—perhaps even a point/counterpoint article written by two or more contributors—would be stimulating additions.

In this regard, another point of negotiation is between what we might term the conventional and the unconventional.  For example, an encyclopedia’s creators must decide how conventionally it is to be organized.  David, Simon and Miles usefully point to the limits of an alphabetical organization of topics, while acknowledging that alphabetical order is a powerful, widely used organizing convention in which readers are well-versed and therefore able to navigate effectively for a variety of purposes.  So each blends alphabetical conventions with a variety of other structural devices including the clustering of thematically related articles and “topic finder” listings.  And they point to the navigational virtues and potential of on-line versions, which facilitate key-word searches and hypertext links to related materials both within and outside the volumes themselves.  That being said, the editorial determination of categories that determine the specific articles to be written, however clustered or linked, must still navigate between the use of conventional (and therefore predictable and expected) categories and unconventional categories that, in their unconventionality, may pique readers’ interest or suggest emerging fields of inquiry.  The editorial decisions as to how safely or adventurously to play with categories is a topic itself worth further attention.

All three of these admirable projects are intended both explicitly and implicitly to play important social roles.  Each serves the interests of members of various groups, and each can serve the interest of multiple groups, groups for example that gravitate toward particular topics and themes.  At the same time, each project implicitly aims to further the creation and maintenance of an imagined community—to help or encourage users to think of themselves as members of (among their multiple memberships and identities) and participants in a community/network of fellow users.  In the case of the Encyclopedias of American Folklife and American Studies, that community is constituted primarily by the paying of association dues or annual conference registration fees, even though other readers are also involved.  In the case of the Encyclopedia of Queer Culture, that community is less institutionalized although, I would venture, not less intensely and perhaps even more intensely imagined.

These encyclopedias are thus in important respects not merely tools for their users, created by editors and contributing writers, but creations of their users themselves.  In commissioning an entry, an editor (or editorial board) is not merely signifying a belief that the entry is an important component of the field but is gambling that at least some potential users will agree and will be motivated to find their way to the entry.  Given the large number of entries in an encyclopedia, any individual entry can survive, like a fly in amber, even if it attracts few or even no users.  It can profit from safety in numbers.  On-line encyclopedias are particularly amenable to such archiving of the not-used.  Nevertheless, keeping an encyclopedia “fresh,” like keeping a field of discourse or a professional association fresh, requires the continual infusion of fresh materials that meet actual users’ interests.