The future of the dictionary

ein Lexikon © Fotolia/masaandsaya

The Historical Dictionary of Switzerland has reached the last letter of its alphabet. Is it also the end for all such dictionaries? Is Wikipedia replacing encyclopaedias written by experts? Not at all, says François Vallotton, a member of the Historical Dictionary’s Foundation Board. And he’s not alone – the longstanding Wikipedian Charles Andrès is of the same opinion.

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)It was mere chance of the calendar that caused the coincidence of two events of major importance in the field of dictionaries. First there was the entry into receivership of the Encyclopædia Universalis. Then there was the launch of the 13th and final volume of the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, marking the end of a very long editorial project (in fact, more than a quarter of a century), which started on paper and then began adding an electronic version in 1998.

We could conclude from this that the encyclopaedia has been rendered obsolete by the new options for research offered by the Internet. There is, however, still space in the future for higher added-value digital projects in the field of science. Specifically, these will offer alternatives - or rather supplements - to crowd-sourced encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia. I will highlight the several prerequisites that may be needed to guarantee such continuity, using the historical dictionary as an example.

There is still a solid reason to develop lexicographical formats in a closed and controlled way, privileging balanced and systemised entries rather than entries that have been enriched in a random and more subjective fashion. And this is particularly true of retrospective formats. A second avenue is to think about the options for research and for grouping information. We will not be limited to consulting dictionaries through the use of plain text, as is still the case in most online specialised dictionaries. In this area, the handiest instruments are indexing and semantics-enabling, given their leverage potential. In the same way, we must first also be able to guarantee links to certain reference databases in the specialist areas at hand. Finally, whilst there is broad agreement on the attractiveness of multimedia companies, they still need to break away from the editorial preference for text in favour of sound and images. And audio-visual elements must not be reduced to ‘illustrations’ of the printed text; they must participate on the same level as the text as part of a global lexicographical concept.

This is the challenge faced by the new Historical Dictionary of Switzerland project that is currently being created in close collaboration with the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences. This is an excellent laboratory for historians as well as an opportunity to continue a centuries-old Swiss editorial tradition.

François Vallotton is a professor of modern history at the University of Lausanne and a member of the Foundation Board of the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. Vallotton specialises in the history of publishing and of the media.