Faculty Research

Encyclopedic Knowledge

by Maura Beth Pagano, '12

2009_summer_obrien_main

Professor Jodi O’Brien recently finished editing a significant and important encyclopedia.

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Professor Jodi O’Brien will be the first to tell you that taking on the role of encyclopedia editor is no easy task. Earlier this year, her two-volume Encyclopedia of Gender and Society was published by Sage Publications. This unprecedented encyclopedia includes 500 entries on issues of sociology and sexuality written by 304 experts from around the globe.

When Sage first approached O’Brien with the idea of editing an encyclopedia, she was hesitant.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” says O’Brien, who chairs Seattle University’s Department of Society, Justice & Culture.

She was ultimately persuaded to take on the project by friend and colleague George Ritzer, a renowned sociologist and author of the popular monograph, The McDonaldization of Society.

“We both knew it would be a challenge, but he told me it would be fun and interesting, so I went ahead with it,” says O’Brien. She even mentions Ritzer in the encyclopedia’s acknowledgments, naming him as the one who “talked her into considering this project in the first place.”

Not long after she began the process of editing the encyclopedia, O’Brien encountered her first dilemma—creating an entry list on the broad topic of gender.

To narrow the massive list of suggested entries, O’Brien sought input from colleagues. “We didn’t want the encyclopedia to exhaust the subject of
gender,” O’Brien explains. “We wanted it to be representative.”

Knowing that it was impossible to include every gender-related topic in the final product, O’Brien and her team—a panel of esteemed scholars
and leaders in professional organizations associated with the subject matter—assembled a comprehensive collection of entries centered on areas including pop culture, criminal justice, race, human rights and politics. The topics ran the gamut from the expected to the quirky—G.I. Joe and Wonder Woman come to mind.

Combing through the entries to formulate a final list for the book proved difficult, and organizing such a large quantity of content presented  its own set of challenges.

Although she has written several books and articles, O’Brien says this is the first time she has edited a publication of this magnitude. Editing submissions from more than 300 contributors required a major time commitment—nearly five years. But the end result was worth it.

O’Brien says it was rewarding to explore contemporary gender issues in such depth and to do so in a way that will be beneficial to others. While librarians are the target audience for the encyclopedia, she believes that the book has broad appeal.

“People use encyclopedias as a social service. Of course anyone can find information online, but it is not subjected to the amount of fact checking that goes into making an encyclopedia,” O’Brien says. “Besides being reliable, the information in this encyclopedia is something all different kinds of students and people can use, and that’s what really matters.”



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