Columbia Encyclopedia: Preface

The Columbia Encyclopedia began its existence in the 1920s when Clarke Fisher Ansley and Columbia University Press recognized the need for a first aid for those who read. They envisioned and created a handy, reliable one-volume encyclopedia that would be a suitable companion to a good dictionary and atlas. Now in its sixth edition some 80 years later, The Columbia Encyclopedia continues to serve the purposes for which it was conceived.

Like the world we live in, the contents within this book have changed in many significant ways since the first edition, but even the seven years since the last edition have seen changes of great importance. In the early 1990s electronic mail was unknown to most Americans and the World Wide Web was just being born; now they have transformed the Internet into an inescapable part of our lives, both at home and at work. Inside this encyclopedia's covers you will find articles on electronic mail and the Web as well as on many other aspects of the computer revolution that affect our lives, from the personal computer and the modem to the smart card and repetitive-stress injury.

Reference books, too, have been affected by the computer revolution, and some days it seems that the death of the printed encyclopedia is here. Those of our readers who feared that this would happen to The Columbia Encyclopedia need fear no longer. With this new edition of the book, Columbia University Press reaffirms the vision that first led it to publish this work. That vision has not been voided by the information revolution. Readers continue to want a book that, with the flip of the page, can be turned to for information whenever needed. This encyclopedia remains the handiest one-stop, one-volume solution for that need, capable of being powered up by the mind and connected to by the desire to learn.

A few minutes spent looking up China can turn into an absorbing hour devoted to following the trail of our many cross-references and delving into China's provinces and cities, its ancient dynasties and modern rulers and political parties, and its rich literature, art, and architecture. Each time the encyclopedia is opened a similar journey can begin, and it is the rare reader who has not been fascinated by what there is to know about the world. More than 80,000 cross-references—the original and still highly functional predecessor of hypertext—will lead you from entry to entry on the countries, regions, and cities of our world; the plants and animals with which we share this planet; and those men and women who have made and are making history in government, business, the sciences, and the arts. You cannot learn everything here, but The Columbia Encyclopedia remains quite a kit for first aid.

The sixth edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia encompasses the discoveries, crises, and other events of the 1990s—and of the 1900s and the innumerable decades and centuries gone before. For a one-volume work, the scope is immense. The nearly 51,000 entries in the encyclopedia marshal six and a half million words on a vast range of topics. Changes in the arts and literature, in mathematics and physics, in medicine and politics, in society and sports, and in many other fields can be found in the articles within this book. The turmoil in the former Yugoslavia, in the Caucasus, in equatorial Africa, and in East Timor is recorded here, as are the events at home surrounding the impeachment of President Clinton. The genetic and reproductive revolutions in all their complexity will also be found within our pages: the hopes and challenges of gene therapy and the Human Genome Project, the seeming miracles and ethical problems enmeshed in in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood.

The encyclopedia always has been both informative and a pleasure to read, and we are pleased to say—and our loyal readers will be pleased to hear—that it remains as it was. The editors and writers who have produced this edition have striven to provide our readers with useful articles that are both reliable and readable: accurate, perceptive, concise, and at times even a little witty. In this they were no different from their predecessors, and although this edition is the work of new writers, researchers, and editors, the encyclopedia is also the product of the accumulated effort and insights of all those who labored before us, both on The Columbia Encyclopedia itself and on The Columbia Gazetteer of the World, another of the Press's signature reference works.

Nearly 1,300 new entries grace this volume, and almost 40 percent of the existing entries were revised when preparing this edition. We have made a special effort to expand and enrich our computer, medical, and other science coverage, even while maintaining the traditional strengths that have made the encyclopedia a great reference work. For the first time we have paragraphed our longer articles, and we have added thousands more italicized subheadings, thus making the articles easier to read and information easier to find. As always, we have provided pronunciations where they are needed. About one quarter of our articles have bibliographies, which offer our readers the opportunity to explore a subject further in excellent basic reading. Where necessary we have supplemented the text of the articles with diagrams, tables, and maps. We believe it is something of a feat of book design and book production that so many words can be contained in a vehicle that is not only sturdy, durable, and portable but visually handsome.

My editorial colleagues on this project were professionals of the highest caliber, with decades of accumulated experience working on encyclopedias and other reference books; they were as knowledgeable, dedicated, and hardworking a group of people as anyone could hope to work with. William B. Strachan, President and Director of Columbia University Press, and James Raimes, Assistant Director of the Press for Reference Publishing, both brought a strong personal and institutional commitment to publication of the sixth edition. Linda Secondari, Nicholas Frankovich, and others at the Press devoted many hours to assuring that the encyclopedia's electronic files became the eminently readable book you see before you, and the staff at Impressions Books and Journal Services worked tirelessly and with great thoroughness to realize Rich Hendel's fine new design for this edition. I think I may say for all of us who worked on the book in so many different ways, both on this edition and on earlier ones, that we all regard this encyclopedia less as a book than as a kind of public trust. We always have committed ourselves to giving our readers the best, despite the imperfections that inhere in any human endeavor. We hope that those who use this encyclopedia experience the pleasure and insight that we have worked to provide.