How Readers Shape the Content of an Encyclopedia:
A Case Study Comparing the German Meyers Konversationslexikon (1885-1890) with Wikipedia (2002-2013)

Spree, Ulrike: How Readers Shape the Content of an Encyclopedia: A Case Study Comparing the German Meyers Konversationslexikon (1885-1890) with Wikipedia (2002-2013). In: Culture Unbound : Journal of Current Cultural Research; Vol. 6, Article 29, 2014 www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se/v6/a29/cu14v6a29.pdf

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Abstract

How knowledge is negotiated between the makers of encyclopedias and their audiences remains an ongoing question in research on encyclopedias. A comparative content analysis of the published answers of letters to the editor of the German Meyers Konversationslexikon (Korrespondenzblatt) from 1885 and the discussion pages of the article potato of the German Wikipedia (2013) reveals continuities as well as changes in the communication between encyclopedia producers and their audiences. The main reasons why readers and editors communicate are the need for updated factual information, an exchange on editorial principles and the intellectual exchange of ideas on ideological and philosophical questions in relation to the encyclopedic content. Editors and readers attach a lot of importance to the process of verifying information through bibliographical references. Whereas, for the editors of Meyers Konversationslexikon the leading role of experts remains undisputed, Wikipedians work in a contradictory situation. They are on the one hand exposing knowledge production to a permanent process of negotiation, thereby challenging the role of experts, on the other hand relying strongly on bibliographical authorities. Whilst the reasons for the communication between readers and editors of Meyers Konversationslexikon and among Wikipedia contributors coincide, the understanding of the roles of readers and editors differ. The editors of the Korrespondenzblatt keep up a lecturing attitude. As opposed to this, administrators in Wikipedia want to encourage participation and strive to develop expertise among the participating contributors. Albeit power relations between administrators, regular authors, occasional authors and readers continue to exist they are comparatively flat and transient. Regardless of these differences, the comparison between Meyers Konversationslexikon and Wikipedia indicates that the sine qua non for activating an upwards spiral of quality improvement is that readers accept, learn and cultivate common rules – including how to deal with dissent – and identify with the product at least so far as that they report mistakes.