Saturday, 6 June 2009

Drinking with Ifor Bach

If you need to find something out chances are you’ll check with Google. Who exactly was Ifor Bach, for example. Has to be someone who did more than drink near Cardiff Castle. The Wikipedia tells us in about eight seconds that Ifor Bach scaled the walls of the Norman Stronghold at Cardiff in an act of glorious rebellion. But for info in greater depth a better place to look would be the recently published Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. Here you’ll find accuracy, context and cross reference in reliable style. The Encyclopaedia has been a godsend to anyone with a concern for Wales. In the making ten years (when in hope and excitement the editors originally thought three would do it) but as comprehensive and readable as they come.

There are two editions, one in Welsh and one in English, compiled by a team of four editors and several hundred individual contributors. Entries in all fields of human knowledge and experience were commissioned, checked, cross-check, translated, amended and updated. John Davies, the eminence gris at the head smoothed the waters. Peredur Lynch, Nigel Jenkins and Menna Baines paddled furiously below. The books, published by UWP are certainly worth the wait. In their fine black covers they glow on the shelves. Every home should have one was the promotional slogan. To judge by sales so far almost every one has.

But the problem with works like this, glorying in their comprehensiveness, is that they can date. People die, things happen, the world moves. Anything printed can only ever be a snapshot of how it was and how it might have been thought of at a point in time.

Leaving aside the small number of inevitable infelicities reported to the publishers by keen members of the public - “The photograph you have on page 84 of the train leaving the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog is actually a photograph of the train arriving at Blaenau Ffestiniog” – some things will have to be updated.

In an age of digital everything from shopping to sleeping just how should this be done? Already Academi are in negotiation to trial a selection of the content on line. Faster access to greater depth when you Google. But the text, as it is, remains.

It has been suggested that the publishers might look at a sort of Wikipediaisation of the project. Put it on line, 1200 pages, more than 5000 entries, and then allow the public access to add and amend as they choose. An Encyclopaedia of the moment. Someone gets elected in a by-election and, instantly, details are added. A desirable possibility. But it would also be possible to add bogus facts and shift the weight of the scholarship. So Ifor Bach invented Brains, did he? What do others think?

A version of this blog appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 6th June as The Insider

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