David Self looks at who and what has made it into the new Oxford encyclopedia.
OXFORD CHILDREN'S ENCYCLOPEDIA:REVISED EDITION Oxford University Press: nine-volume boxed set Pounds 125 till January 1997, then Pounds 150. Age range 8-13.
Oasis, Blur, Bosnia, the Internet, the Gulf War, virtual reality . . . You can see why an encyclopedia needs updating after the past five years. But the noteworthy thing about the new edition of The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia is the extent of the revision that has been undertaken since the first version appeared in 1991.
That was the result of 12 years' gestation. Aimed at eight to 13-year-olds, it was built on research into how children use encyclopedias and what they want from them. It eschewed a thematic approach, mainly because its potential users have not acquired the concepts that allow them to locate entries under such an arrangement - despite an alphabetic arrangement being less "commercial".
In such a format, the change of a name (such as Kampuchea to Cambodia) causes chaos to the pagination, preventing easy revision; nor will the format convert (lucratively), spread by spread, into another language.
What also made the original version so distinctive was the thoroughness of the consultancy and re-writing processes, and the useful separate Biography and Index volumes. The new edition sticks to the same arrangement, although the original five alphabetical volumes have been "expanded" to seven. Except, in total, they now contain fewer pages. Similarly, the "expanded" Biography volume is also thinner than its predecessor. The Index book, however, is longer, fuller and considerably more useful.
Some of the most interesting changes occur in the biographical volume. Royals, pop and sports stars are no longer patronised by being kept apart in separate sections. Princess Anne and Fergie have all but disappeared. Diana and Charles are still said to have fallen in love before their marriage and are not yet divorced. Clinton and Yeltsin (but not Major) have made the new edition while out have gone such disparate characters as Judy Blume, the Rothschild family and Samson. In have come "special features" on, for example, famous children (an improbable collection of Mozart, Anne Frank, Christopher Robin and Macaulay Culkin).
Political and technology entries have obviously required re-writing and there are some 500 new photographs. The opportunity has also been taken to revise many other entries. Teachers were formerly quoted as finding Enid Blyton's writing "very flat and uninteresting"; they now find her stories "often racist and sexist". The physicist Ernest Rutherford's work no longer "sadly" led to the creation of nuclear weapons, but homosexuality gets a mention and (thankfully and bravely) "is now generally regarded as a normal kind of human sexuality".
Many of the highly instructive "Things to Do" sections have disappeared - perhaps because of the pressure to include new entries. These are numerous. In just a few random pages, we have extra articles on the Comoros islands, CDs, complementary medicine and computer games. But there has been some other meddling.
The Geometry entry used to begin: "Imagine a square. Move it around in your mind . . ." It now begins: "Geometry is the branch of mathematics that studies the properties of shapes and figures." Genetics used to begin: "Why do sunflowers but not daisies grow from sunflower seeds?" It now starts: "Genetics looks at how living things pass on the instructions for the development of a new plant or animal . . ." Yes, this is just as an attractive, well-researched and thorough encyclopedia as the first edition, but I can't help feeling it is also duller.