Encyclopaedia Africana Project
"A Pan African Dream Come True"

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Date: 1997 August 7

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EAP Secretariat's Archive
1997 August 7

Dream of Encyclopaedia Africana Nears Reality

by Mathew Mirapaul
New York Times
New York, NY, USA
August 7, 1997

W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African-American thinker, first proposed in 1909 compiling a reference work on black history and cultures around the world. Du Bois moved to Ghana in 1961 to direct the writing of the Encyclopaedia Africana, but it remained far from finished at the time of his death two years later. 

 Now, Du Bois's dream is close to becoming a multimedia reality  -- perhaps as soon as 1999 --  as the Microsoft Corp. prepares  to add an African-culture title  to its popular Encarta line of  disk-based, Internet-linked  information resources for  computers. 

Although the company would  not comment officially on the  project, to be dubbed either Encarta Africana or Afropaedia,  it is "pretty well underway and  pretty well thought out, and it's  in production," according to one  Microsoft executive familiar with  its progress. 

 Craig Bartholomew, the manager of Microsoft's  reference business unit, did not  return a reporter's phone calls seeking to confirm the Redmond, Wash., firm's commitment to the project. Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-editor of the effort with Kwame Anthony Appiah, declined to comment at Microsoft's behest. 

If Encarta Africana fulfills its ambitious premise, it will be an essential guide to the continent's global influence on art, music and literature through its overflowing streams of religion, politics and other forms of cultural expression. 

Like other Encarta titles, Africana can be expected to use text, images, audio and video to explore its subjects, here ranging from an essay on St. Maurice, an early Christian saint of black origin, to the sounds of Motown, jazz and rap. 

Previously planned as a series of four CD-ROMs, the new Encarta title also might be released as a DVD-ROM, a new format that can hold seven times more data than a standard CD-ROM. 

A Web-based component might offer a condensed but freely accessible information site, as well as timely updates for the disk-based resource. A teaching guide for the educational market also is being discussed. 

Gates, chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard University and director of the school's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, has spent almost two decades trying to publish a version of the Encyclopaedia Africana. 

It was first pitched as a print project to Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1979, and more recently Random House, Simon & Schuster and the Voyager Company had considered producing it. 

Microsoft, which is run by another well-known smart guy named Gates, appears to have been undaunted by the $4 million cost that was at one time affixed to the project. The company is expanding in Africa, with 3 offices already open and 10 more to come in the next three years. 

In a comment that may help explain the company's interest in the project, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, said at a news conference during a business visit to South Africa in March that the Internet "is the single most important tool that will open Africa up to the rest of the world. It is the future of communication worldwide and Africa is not as far behind as some people believe." 

Trademark concerns will prevent the use of the name "Encyclopaedia Africana," which belongs to another publishing venture, although negotiations are underway for a companion print volume that may be called the Perseus Africana Encyclopaedia. 

Appiah, a Harvard professor in both Afro-American studies and philosophy, wrote in a February e-mail message that, regardless of who elected to become the publisher of the reference work, its contents "must be written from scratch." He estimated that the effort would take two years. 

The Harvard colleagues reportedly have been looking for office space in Cambridge, Mass., and have hired Patricia Sullivan, a scholar specializing in civil-rights history, as the project's managing editor. Microsoft has assigned Darryl Lewis to oversee its part of the development. 

In February, Appiah was enthusiastic about multimedia's ability to flesh out Du Bois's vision. 

"We have, finally, a technology that can explore and explain the expressive features --the music and dance, the art and cinema, and the literature and oral traditions -- that are the heart of the cultural achievements of people of African descent," he wrote. 

"Du Bois himself expressed the centrality of music to black life by placing at the head of each of the essays of The Souls of Black Folk a musical 'epigraph,' whose presence signified that something of the souls of black folk can only be recovered in music," he continued. 

"In the printed book, Du Bois had to do this by printing in musical notations. Now, in the electronic book, we can provide the music itself. It is finally possible to literalize one of the master tropes of the African-American literary tradition: to make real what the slave narratives called the 'talking book.'" 

While shopping the project around, Gates and Appiah commissioned the development of a prototype CD-ROM by Dynamic Diagrams. It is not clear whether its elegant interface will be retained or if the encyclopedia will be shoehorned into the existing Encarta interface. 

If so, perhaps the distinctive "swoosh" sound of its controls will be replaced by the resonant thump of an African drum. 

Either way, Microsoft could definitely use some expert help in putting the funk into its Funk and Wagnalls, the venerable reference work that supplied the foundation for the first edition of the original Encarta. 

For example, online versions of Encarta describe John Coltrane as a "tenor saxophonist and composer, considered the leading practitioner of free-form jazz in the 1960's." 

Coltrane played the soprano sax on his most popular recording, "My Favorite Things," which is not mentioned. More important, if there were a tinfoil tiara for the king of free-form jazz, Ornette Coleman would probably be better suited to wear it. (The drastically wrong-headed entry for Coleman also misspells harmolodics, the name he coined for his musical philosophy.) 

Through the Du Bois Institute, Gates and Appiah already have access to a deep database of source documents. A Web-based list of research projects includes an online collection of 20,000 slides of African art and a CD-ROM of literary texts drawn from African-American periodicals. A photo archive holds 25,000 images of blacks as they are represented in Western art works. 

Du Bois's writings were a profound influence on the course of 20th century history, planting the seeds for both the civil-rights and black-nationalist movements. 

Gates and Appiah are two of today's leading black voices, with intellectual firepower to spare. If their Encarta Africana arrives on computers around the world in 1999, perhaps they will have an equally significant impact on the 21st Century.

Responses to the above article:

  1. Dream of Encyclopaedia Africana Near Reality
    by Mrs. Grace Bansa, Acting Director of the Secretariat, Encyclopaedia Africana Project, Accra, Ghana, West Africa, August 11, 1997
  2. Preserving History Protecting a Legacy: W.E.B. Du Bois' dream and work for an Encyclopaedia Africana lives! by David Graham Du Bois, Guest Columnist for "The Final Call", Accra, Ghana, West Africa , October 7, 1997


Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography
Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography

Encyclopaedia Africana Project
1997 August 7
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