Encyclopaedia A F R I C A N A [..coming soon?] FWD'd

re: using CD-ROM/DVD technology for AFRICANA: text, images, audio
        and video explore, teach and elucidate

Please post...of possible interest to some.  

A project in the making.




Dream of Encyclopaedia Africana Nears Reality


[comment to: mirapaul@nytimes.com -- suggestions welcome!]

      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

 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

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.


Related Sites  (you have to log onto this article at the NY Times site to
access these links)

Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article.
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times
has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished
visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by
clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page

     Encarta Online from Microsoft Corp.

     A prototype page about St. Maurice predates Microsoft's
     involvement in the project

     W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research

     Sample pages from the prototype CD-ROM for Encyclopaedia
     Africana can be found at Dynamic Diagrams site, including an
     arts-related table of contents and a jazz timeline

     A biography of W.E.B. Du Bois

Matthew Mirapaul at mirapaul@nytimes.com welcomes your
comments and suggestions.

August 7, 1997 - NY Times

Go to:

Enter **all** of the above into your http/netsite finder box, without any
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Well, hope this is of interest.  Something to watch for and hope will turn
out well.



ps: let's hope for translations in African languages, as well as in major
European and Asian languages, if this project turns out well  

A big IF...


Cecil Washington
Oberlin College/UC Berkeley
FAX: 310-631-1322

Consultant-African Affairs
& Former Director - Africa Program
Operation Crossroads Africa