The Business of Making an Encyclopedia and the Impact of Digitization: The Example of the Encyclopædia Iranica

Riedel, Dagmar A.

In the brave new world of digital publishing on the internet, encyclopedias have been transformed from unyieldy bookcase fillers to online databases with a seemingly unlimited potential for expansion. The web-based publication of encyclopedias seems particularly appropriate for a multi-disciplinary field such as Medieval Studies that is primarily defined by the time frame of 500–1500 CE. But in order to design databases for reference works that foster comparative research and interdisciplinarity—approaches that we hold so dear because they are rather difficult to realize in our work—it is necessary to understand how digitization and the internet have changed the role of encyclopedias in teaching and research. In the following reflection on how internet encyclopedias fit into the Western history of encyclopedia production since l'Encyclopédie (1751–1780) by Diderot and d'Alembert, I draw upon my experiences as one of the associate editors of the Encyclopædia Iranica (EIr), which includes entries on medieval Iran and medieval Persian literature as part of its comprehensive coverage of Iranian civilization from prehistory to the present (for the conceptualization of the study of medieval Iran within Iranian Studies, compare the approaches of Bulliet 1994 and Fragner 1999). Although the EIr continues to be published in print, its enlarged free online version has the potential to become a web-based collaborative project that would promote teaching and research across geographical and disciplinary boundaries.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Center for Iranian Studies
Published Here
August 29, 2012


Revised version of “The ‘Dark Ages’ of Medieval Iran: Medieval Studies, Islam, and the Digital Version of the Encyclopaedia Iranica,” a paper presented in June 2010 at the 3rd International MARGOT Conference.
This posted version contains an error, as I had only learned in spring 2011 that databases cannot be stored on an Academic Commons. Columbia University Libraries is relying on the Wayback Machine ( to provide an institutional back-up of the Encyclopaedia Iranica database.
In December 2010, this version was submitted for peer review to be included into the Selected Conference Proceedings, to be published in the 2011 issue of the Digital Medievalist. The guidelines for submissions were limited to matters of style (author-year format, neither endnotes nor footnotes) and a clear instruction regarding length (2000-6000 words including bibliography). In August 2011, this version was rejected, without the option of "revise and resubmit," based on the recommendation of a single anonymous reviewer:
"My recommendation is that the article is not publishable in its current state. While I believe the subject could be interesting, the author's approach is awkward and often confusing. Paragraph topic sentences go astray, never leading to any kind of solid synthesis. There is an ongoing mismatch of information regarding print encyclopedias and digital research sources (including but certainly not defined by the concept of an encyclopedia) - this is made more (and unnecessarily) complex by the author's presumptions about how such digital resources are (or are not) appreciated by the academy. I could never quite understand whether the author was defending the resources and the people who make them, or the academic structure which (the author seems to believe) undermines them. Curiously, and without preamble, the author uses Wikipedia as the bar by which an academic encyclopedia should be judged. Soon thereafter, the author implies that universities are dismantling their IT infrastructures and outsourcing software development to Google and Wikipedia - a statement that as articulated seems unsupportable.For an essay that purports to be a case study, in my opinion, there needs to be a better balance between the state of the field and specifics of the project at hand (EIr). There should also be a balance between the frustrations inherent in such a task and the benefits in undertaking and sustaining it. Rather than general inferences to challenges faced in the early days of digitizing the project, I would like to read more about what makes the digital realm helpful for a specialized project such as this. Have the contributors discovered a beneficial digital solution to the multilingual nature of their research? Have they been able to maximize the potential of metadata in a way that strengthens the project? Does the nature of a de-centralized digital project (physically housed at Columbia but available to contributing scholars all over the world) enhance the perspectives inherent in the encyclopedia entries - or perhaps allow for dynamic interaction and meaningful amendment among scholars collaborating on entries? Several times the author refers to the marginalized nature of scholars of Iranian studies within multidisciplinary medieval studies. Does the author find that the digital platform assists in overcoming that marginalization (the author may be attempting to discuss this, but veers off whenever coming close to a conclusion).It should also be pointed out that there are several significant grammatical and stylistic errors and oversights in the essay. For example, Ehsan Yarshater is first referred to as "her" (p. 5) and later as "he/him". I assume the "her" was a typographical error, but is confusing. There are also missing URL's (marked only by a "?") and other confusing errors."