Reference works, from A-Z encyclopedias to short subject dictionaries, published online or in print, have many characteristics in common. Whether there is a single author, or a dispersed collection of compilers all over the world, most of the problems of compilation remain similar. With care, reference content can be created that works both online and in print. I have tried to summarise the essential points for compiling reference works in a single list of ten tips, which assumes an initial single compilation, rather than the Wikipedia-style collaborative creation and update: one of the challenges of Wikipedia has been (and remains) how to create some kind of unity from volunteers who frequently take exception to following rules. Wikipedia has nobody in charge, and it shows. Other reference works can at least be more coherent and balanced.
This list of recommendations is very concise, even, to be honest, trite: these are simply a few principles that seemed to be common from my experience of many different kinds of reference-work compilation. Nonetheless, large or small, some things matter. However basic the recommendations may be, many large-scale reference projects fail because they ignore these fundamental points.
1. Establish the readership.
Is this work for teenagers? for higher education? For general users? Your approach will differ based on your answers to this question. How much can they be expected to know, and what do you have to explain to them? Determine the reader profile before going any further. Then read all your content and ask yourself: will my target reader understand this without further explanation?
2. Create a headword list.
This is the single most important task, and should comprise a substantial part of the entire compilation time (perhaps 20%). Are you going to have an entry for “The Origin of Species” as well as for “Charles Darwin”, or just one or the other?
3. Create article lengths.
Ideally, and unlike Wikipedia, your reference work should have entries with length roughly proportional to the topic’s importance. If you have external contributors, elicit their comments on proposed article length. Wikipedia tends to get overwhelmed by enthusiastic contributors who want to write about a subject they like. Star Trek has much more detailed coverage in Wikipedia than Shakespeare.
4. Create sample entries.
You should create at least three short, medium and long template entries, for other authors to follow as a style guide. These give indications of style and tone for the compilers. Compilers will follow these far more than a formal style guide (see below).
5. Think about rights.
Do you have permission to publish all the content that will appear in the work? In all formats? In all markets? It is expensive to clear rights after publication.
6. Create a style guide.
Style guides ensure a consistency of treatment that makes a good reference work. They are a pain to compile but are vital for large-scale works. They can be continually updated. Trouble is, they take an age to compile, if done well, and are hardly ever referred to; but a simple style guide is a must.
7. Establish a linking policy.
You might choose to leave it to the computer, as Wikipedia does, so that every use of certain words becomes a link, for example “He was born in France” becomes a link to the “France” entry. Or you can think about when it might be appropriate to link, and when not. The latter approach is more work, but produces a better product.
8. Think multi-format publishing.
Is this going to be a print title? A Web title? Or both? Make sure you don’t have references such as “see page 245”. There are plenty of ways of eliminating this problem. In a print volume, it is easy to state “in the last article”, or “in the next chapter”, but on the Web there may be neither, since chunks are accessed and read independently. Make sure your content does not refer to other sections in this way.
9. Set an illustration policy.
Are you going to illustrate only long entries? Some short entries may need an illustration to make any sense (such as DNA). Specify which entries are to be illustrated at the start.
10. Create only as much metadata as is required for the initial use of the work.
How much metadata (tagging) is sufficient? Don’t start thinking of possible ways of accessing the material in five years’ time; restrict yourself to the immediate market and your anticipated first users. You can always add more tags later. But make sure, via your style guide (above) that the metadata you add is consistent and unambiguous.