Historical meeting of encyclopedias in Brussels

Historical meeting in Brussels

How can encyclopedias contribute to public education in a time of fake news and disinformation? The Great Norwegian Encyclopedia (SNL) invited encyclopedias from 16 countries in Europe and North America to Brussels to discuss opportunities and challenges related to digitalization and financing.

On 10 and 11 October, the European Encyclopedia Conference took place in Brussels. Never before have representatives from so many European and North American encyclopedias come together to share experiences and discuss how to address common challenges.

The conference was organized by the SNL in cooperation with the European Parliamentary Research Service and the Mission of Norway to the EU.

Loss of financial basis

The emergence of free and accessible online information has made encyclopedias undergo fundamental changes. Low sales revenues on printed encyclopedias, as well as challenges in making the transition to online publication has caused several encyclopedias to file for bankruptcy. In addition, questions have been raised about the relevance of encyclopedias.  

- Nine years ago we were on the brink of disappearing. There was a big debate in Norway about whether we needed encyclopedias. That debate is quite different today, and we see that people care about counteracting disinformation, said Erik Bolstad, CEO and chief editor of SNL.

Since 2009, the online content of SNL has been accessible to the public free of charge. In 2010, SNL made a change of ownership. Since then, Norwegian universities and several non-profit foundations and organizations have been the owners of the encyclopedia.

Additionally, about 800 researchers from different universities contribute as editors and reviewers. The independent, non-profit, university-owned encyclopedic organizational model has made SNL the biggest research dissemination site in Norway with more than 2,6 million visitors per month.

Rolf Einar
Photo:Yngve Angvik

During his opening speech, Norway’s ambassador to the EU, Rolf Einar Fife pointed out the importance of verified and trustworthy information sources such as encyclopedias, especially in a time when we discuss how to deal with fake news, disinformation, alternative facts and propaganda.

-The digitalization of these sources of knowledge gives us the opportunity to tackle some of the main challenges with the traditional paper based encyclopedia: To keep the information updated, and to provide access for a broader public, Fife said.

The state of national encyclopedias in Europe

In 2018, the European Parliament presented a report on the current state of national encyclopedias across Europe. The report stated that encyclopedias in several countries are struggling with financing, content production and visitors, while in other places, such as in Norway and Latvia, good solutions have been found.

- The conference has given us a greater insight into others countries experiences and expertise: how they are organized and owned, as well as how they present and assure the quality of their information. It is nice to see that we can learn from each other, Bolstad said.

Conference moving to Zagreb next year

Encyclopedias from Croatia, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, Georgia, Denmark, Montenegro, Germany, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Austria, Canada, Lithuania, Catalonia, the USA, France and Norway participated in the two-day conference.

MEP and Vice-Chair in the Committee on Culture and Education, Dace Melbarde also hosted a reception for the participants in the European Parliament.

Due to the success of the conference, two additional conferences have already been scheduled: the first one in Zagreb in October 2020, and a second one in Oslo in 2021.