norway’s major print encyclopedia goes user-generated

Store norske leksikon is Norway’s major, mainstream encyclopedia. Last week they opened their attempt at conquering the digital world: an online encyclopedia where all users can contribute articles and suggest changes to articles, but where some articles are “quality assured” by topic experts. Anyone can apply to be a topic expert, but there’s a vetting system – and I think topic experts are paid something, too. This is an interesting model for a well-established, commerical encyclopedia trying to survive in a Wikipedia world – and perhaps it will work very well.

Eirik Newth is their expert on “net culture”, and I’m sure he’ll do a great job. He suggests that perhaps Store norske leksikon should embrace the eternal “beta” of so many web 2.0 sites. He even touched up their logo to help them:

Store norske leksikon logo with BETA added by Eirik Newth

After having a look at the site, I whole-heartedly agree. The “best article of the week” is by prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and is about the importance of vaccination in developing countries. The article has nothing in common with traditional encyclopedia articles and seems an odd choice for setting initial expectations to the content. Admittedly, Stoltenberg is prime minister and they show that they’re taken seriously by important people – and the article is a “user article”, not a quality assured article. But still an odd choice.

Even more embarrassingly, the encyclopedia doesn’t even have basic entries in place. Or rather, it does, but they’re not correctly organised. When I search for “Bergen”, the first entry is “Bergen”, so of course I click that, assuming I’ll find information about Norway’s second largest city. No – instead I find a “quality assured” entry about a frigate named Bergen. Looking more closely, I realise I could have clicked on the second entry in the list of “Bergen” articles – “Bergen ñ offentlige institusjoner, kultur” (Bergen – public institutions, culture) which turns out to be the article about the city itself. The problem here is the way the articles have been categorised. Eventually I found the real article about Bergen – it’s pretty good, but doesn’t show up at all when you simply type in “Bergen” in the search field.

Add to these obvious glitches the ads that keep blinking, blinking, blinking (no ads is a sudden extra reason to love the Wikipedia) and Store norske leksikon really doesn’t excude an aura of well-established authority, despite their tag-line: “Norges ledende oppslagsverk gjennom 100 Âr” (Norway’s leading encyclopedia for 100 years“).

Obviously when you’re setting up a brand new website that involves hundreds, maybe thousands of contributors, it’s going to take a while for everyone to work out the details. Glitches like these are to be expected. Contributors need to learn how to categorise and tag their contributions so they show up in the right place, and content has to be created, too. This takes time. I know – the University of Bergen just got a new website, after years of development, and despite all the excellent work put in by the development team the success of the website depends upon local content creators actually creating the content – and that takes time. Come to think of it, we should probably have a beta logo on our new website too. Or just a sentence displayed at the top of the first page people arrive at: “We’ve just switched to a new website and some information may temporarily be hard to find. We’re working on it and adding more every day!” That might alleviate some of the frustration people have when they can’t find what they’re looking for on a brand new site.

For Store norske leksikon I think it’s even more crucial though. They’re bravely trying to find a model that will enable them to survive in a networked, participatory culture. While I love the Wikipedia, I would hate a world where the Wikipedia was the only encyclopedia. For Store norske leksikon to survive, they need to keep their reputation as being authoritative. And right now, they’re not.

I’m quite sure that Store norske will improve their website exponentially in the weeks and months to come. But for now, I agree with Eirik Newth: they really should flag the newness and un-finishedness of the website. A “beta” stamp on the logo would be a good way to do that.

26. February 2009 by Jill
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