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The Canadian Encyclopedia

From a distance the house at 11043-90 Avenue, Edmonton appears undistinguished. Showing more character, perhaps, than the modern creations of suburbia, alike in their very attempts to be different, but nonetheless commonplace. The impression born of the bright afternoon sunlight filtering through the surrounding trees and the crispness of the air is of a stucco and wood matron no longer young who sleepily awaits evening and the return of her family ... a little bewildered by the passage of time and inclined to drift into thoughts of days past. Confounded, perhaps, by the ever-renewed youth of the university that is her neighbor.

Up closer a small sign breaks the spell. It reads "New Canadian Encyclopedia Publishing." It is the only outward indication that this rather commonplace North Garneau house, no longer a residence, is at the centre of the largest publishing project ever undertaken in Canada, an enterprise described by James Adams writing in the daily Edmonton journal as "the literary-reference equivalent of the CPR."

The man behind this latter day national dream is Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig whose vision of an affordable, comprehensive and up-to-date encyclopedia of Canada was given life by a grant of $4 million from the Government of Alberta. That support for the research and development of the encyclopedia was provided as part of the Province's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 1980, making the encyclopedia the major provincial Anniversary project. When the work is printed in 1985 the Province will present free copies to every public library and school in Canada and to every Canadian diplomatic post abroad. Furthermore, Quebec publishers have been invited to submit proposals for a French-language edition, and to the firm that submits the most suitable proposal will go the publishing rights for that language, free of charge, with no royalty payments whatsoever.

The original English-language Canadian Encyclopedia is being published by New Canadian Encyclopedia Publishing, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hurtig Publishers. And even with the $4 million involvement of the Province of Alberta the entire future of the Edmonton publishing firm is riding on the encyclopedia project: Hurtig bears responsibility for the cost of production, and the overall budget for the Canadian Encyclopedia is nearly $10 million.

The University of Alberta is also playing an important role in the venture. The University is providing office space — at this point, primarily two of its North Garneau houses — and access to its Library, faculty members, and computing facilities. Frank McGuire, the project's managing director, describes the contribution being made by the U of A's faculty and staff as "absolutely tremendous." He says that the expertise available on campus was particularly helpful in the process by which 87 separate subject areas to be covered in the encyclopedia were identified and broken down to topics — some yielding almost 400 topics — and topics refined to provide a preliminary article list, which was itself refined to key words.

These articles — about 10,000 in all — are being prepared by a virtual army of writers. In addition to the more obscure experts of academe, the ranks include contributors whose names are known in almost every Canadian household: Pierre Berton, Peter C. Newman, Thomas Berger, David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Peter Gzowski, Farley Mowat, Roy Bonisteel and others. Altogether some 2,500 people from all parts of Canada will be involved in preparation of the contents.

Mr. McGuire says that a great deal of research went into determining which scholar writer or authority was best equipped to produce the most authoritative article in each field. ''Our contributors are the best in each area of expertise," he says.

Editor-in-chief James H. Marsh is a native of Toronto who edited 75 books on Canadian studies while jointly associated with the Institute of Canadian Studies and McClelland and Stewart Ltd. Working with four other senior editor, 175 special consultants, and 10 national advisors, he will ensure that a balanced viewpoint is presented on all topics. The national advisors are among Canada's most eminent scholars and are located throughout the country in order to provide regional balance and a national perspective. Chairman of the advisory board is Dr. Harry E. Gunning, OC, Killam Professor of Chemistry and former president of the University of Alberta.

"It is obvious," says McGuire, "that there is a pent-up demand for an up-to-date national encyclopedia." In support of that statement he points to letters and cheques he has received from as far away as Newfoundland from people wishing to secure a copy of the publication immediately that it becomes available. That there should be such a demand is understandable for Canada's most recent national encyclopedia, Grolier's 10-volume Encyclopedia Canadiana, was published 25 years ago, a successor to the six-volume Encyclopedia of Canada which appeared in 1935 and An Encyclopedia of the Country printed two years before the turn of the century.

While Grolier's Canadiana has been revised, most recently in 1974, the changing nature of Canadian society has limited its usefulness. The new Canadian Encyclopedia will reflect the nature of Canada today with an increased emphasis on urban life, science and the arts.

The new encyclopedia will also fully recognize the contribution made to the national fabric by the diverse regions. The fact that a publishing venture of the scope of the Canadian Encyclopedia project is taking place in Edmonton is itself eloquent testimony to a regional coming-of-age within the nation. Managing Director McGuire readily concedes that such an undertaking would have been easier — eminently easier — in Toronto, but says that New Canadian Encyclopedia Publishing has been "incredibly successful" in assembling an editorial team in Edmonton. Editor-in-chief Marsh has been quoted as saying that, upon completion of the enterprise, "We'll have the largest storehouse of editorial talent west of New York."

That completion will come in 1985 with the printing — and for that it will be necessary to go to Toronto — of 100,000 sets of the encyclopedia. Both the form and content of the finished product have been determined with one consideration ever-in-mind: accessibility. That has meant that the encyclopedia which could easily have stretched to 10 or even 20 million words has been limited to approximately three million words, not many more than the 1957 Canadiana. Those words will be contained in three volumes of a boxed set, each book containing some 700 pages. This format — plus of course the contribution made by the Alberta government and the University of Alberta — has made it possible to set the anticipated retail price at $149 (in 1985 dollars). And that is a truly accessible price, especially considering that a comparable Encyclopedia of Japan, printed in one color with fewer illustrations, sells for $700.

The Canadian Encyclopedia is to contain a total of 1,600 illustrations, most in full color, and 540 maps, most in color. The encyclopedia is laid out in large format 8 1/2 by 11 inch pages, and each volume will have a binding that is heavily reinforced and is so designed that it will stay flat when open. A great deal of research went into the choice of a typeface that is both highly readable and economical of space and into the development of a graphic design to promote the ease of access to information.

The commitment to accessibility also meant ensuring that the entries did not become too esoteric. Each is to be written so as to be intelligible to a senior high school or first-year college student. With very few exceptions the articles will be signed and most will give suggested readings where more detailed information can be found.

Hurtig Publishers will distribute the encyclopedia across Canada and a gigantic advertising and promotion campaign which is to be complete with kickoff ceremonies in Ottawa and Edmonton is being planned. Unlike almost all other encyclopedias, the Canadian Encyclopedia will be sold in bookstores and department stores and other outlets in every part of the country.

Another novelty associated with the encyclopedia is the fact that, utilizing the resources of the University of Alberta, it will be the first Canadian encyclopedia to use advanced computer technology. Links with the University's computing system are making possible on-line data entry, storage and retrieval, and — using the Bedford publishing system of the campus Printing Services — computer typesetting, formatting, pagination and indexing.

All of this from a sleepy North Garneau house.

Published Winter 1982.

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