(Photo courtesy Dale Hoiberg, AM'74, PhD'93)

Encyclopedic knowledge

After more than three decades at Britannica, editor in chief Dale Hoiberg, AM’74, PhD’93, knows the encyclopedia business inside out.

Nestled against the Chicago River, the Reid-Murdoch building on LaSalle Street is steeped in history. Red brick, with a rectangular clock tower rising from the roof, it served as a temporary morgue after the city’s 1915 Eastland steamship disaster and is said to be haunted.

But on a bright November morning, it seems an unlikely place for ghosts. Home to Encyclopaedia Britannica since 2005, the space harmoniously melds the company’s past and present. Rows of old gold-embossed volumes blend with modern décor: streamlined furniture, shiny glass tables, video screens on the walls.

Riding down the lobby escalator is Dale Hoiberg, Britannica’s editor in chief and senior vice president. Fair and bespectacled with reddish-brown hair, Hoiberg, AM’74, PhD’93, has a tranquil demeanor, but his three and a half decades with the encyclopedia have been intense. Traveling the world to establish Britannica editions in other languages, Hoiberg also has overseen the 246-year-old company’s move to an all-digital format.

Born in North Dakota, Hoiberg attended Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he befriended students from Hong Kong and Taiwan whose families had originally hailed from mainland China. Hoiberg was attracted to what he saw as the mysteries of their language and culture; looking at Chinese characters, he was gripped by the wish to understand their meaning.

Studying Chinese in Augustana’s comparative literature department and then in UChicago’s doctoral program, his fascination deepened. There is “a sensitivity in a lot of Chinese literature that I found so enticing,” he says. “The way the language in poetry, for example, is terse yet capable of immense meaning.” Hoiberg wrote his master’s paper on Chinese romantic poet Xu Zhimo, spent a year in Taiwan, and completed his doctoral courses before deciding in 1977 that he’d take a break and work for maybe a year to help fund his living expenses.

A fellow student suggested that Hoiberg contact Encyclopaedia Britannica, then owned by the Benton Foundation. The foundation was established by William Benton, an advertising executive, US senator, and friend and supporter of the University. Hoiberg placed a call to HR and did a temporary stint in the credit department before starting in editorial, indexing articles on China. One year turned into six and then more as he became involved in producing the 11-volume Concise Encyclopaedia Britannica in Chinese, a collaborative venture between Britannica and the People’s Republic of China.

The initiative began at the request of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, whose statement that China needed a modern encyclopedia was widely reported. Hoiberg became Britannica’s liaison to the project in 1983. The agreement had the Chinese drafting China-related content while Britannica provided the remaining articles for translation. Questions or discrepancies were addressed during meetings of the editorial board, composed equally of representatives from Britannica and the Chinese publishing company.

Although China was known for suppressing free expression, the process was “amazingly free” of acrimony, says Hoiberg. “We had the same goal—we were going to make this work.” Most of the debates that arose could be attributed to philosophical differences or conflicting information, but in a few cases the Chinese balked at including information—for example, some articles on significant historical figures who were out of favor at the time. “We fought that kind of thing,” says Hoiberg. In the end those profiles were included and other disputed entries were edited to the satisfaction of both parties. The one exception was an article on Stalinism, which included scholarly criticism unacceptable to the Chinese; the entire article was eventually scrapped because a consensus couldn’t be reached.

By 1986 Hoiberg’s role at Britannica had expanded to senior editor for Asian products, which included encyclopedias and English language teaching materials. Hoiberg remained in international product development for the next 11 years, taking on more responsibility as Britannica launched encyclopedias in Japan, Hungary, Poland, India, and Korea. During a lunch of the Japanese editorial board in the late ’80s, former UChicago history professor Akira Iriye reminded the editor: “You haven’t finished your dissertation yet—what are you going to do about that?”

Soon, with more encouragement from Iriye, Hoiberg was working under famed sinologist David Tod Roy on annotated English translations of an imperial-era opera about a struggling scholar who rises to become grand councillor. Hoiberg initially intended to write his dissertation on poetry, but Roy nudged him toward traditional Chinese drama. Thinking “that’s poetry too, in its way,” Hoiberg fell in love with the topic his adviser suggested and is an avid opera goer to this day.

While writing, he continued at Britannica, where it became clear that the business model would change dramatically. Sales of its printed encyclopedia started to plummet, affected most directly by CD-ROM encyclopedias like Encarta, bundled with Microsoft PCs for free. Britannica leadership decided to bet on its web-based encyclopedia, introduced in 1994 while the print edition continued. In 1996 Britannica was sold to Swiss investor Jacob E. Safra, who hired Jorge Cauz, now Britannica’s president, to evaluate the reference market.

Cauz soon came to value Hoiberg’s scholarly background and international experience and approached him about becoming Britannica’s editor in chief. “He’s a very modest person, but he is also a very open-minded person,” says Cauz. “We needed to have someone who would be able to modify the way in which we had been doing editorial.” Hoiberg was “very surprised” by the promotion. First thinking the role would be largely academic, he quickly recognized its administrative demands. His biggest responsibility is ensuring that about 100 editors stay keenly attentive to detail. He also makes calls on sensitive issues; deciding how to represent disputed international borders on maps is one particularly formidable challenge.

Another time-consuming charge has been helping his team transition to Britannica Online and the continuous updating it demands. All the editors had to quickly learn to write code and tag images. Five or so editors monitor the feeds regularly. One comes in on Saturdays, another on Sundays, and a third works around the clock, or as close as possible, says Hoiberg, clarifying that “he does sleep.” Once those editors identify a needed update, they access the article, fact-check, and make the change, which then goes to the copy department for review and is posted live about 20 minutes later.

Hoiberg is a huge fan of instant publishing, but some users weren’t so convinced. When Britannica announced in March 2012 that the print volumes were being discontinued, the communications department was deluged with e-mails and letters, some bemoaning the demise of a beloved product. In a post on the Britannica site, Hoiberg stressed that the transition, far from rash, had been more than 30 years in the making

And it’s proved wise. In addition to Britannica’s 500,000 consumer subscribers, about 100 million people worldwide have access to the encyclopedia though institutional subscriptions. The company has been profitable for more than ten years running, after a rough patch in the 1990s as it made the transition from print to digital. Britannica’s old encyclopedia competitors have largely fallen off the map, says communications director Tom Panelas, AM’79: “It’s pretty much us and Wikipedia.”

In a 2006 Wall Street Journal e-mail debate with Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, Hoiberg defended Britannica’s continued relevance despite the existence of a free information provider. He was steadfast, writing, “Most of us don’t need all the information in the world. We need information that yields knowledge—a practical and enlightened understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.”

Wikipedia may dismiss his company as antiquated, but Hoiberg prefers to talk about the future. He sees the encyclopedia’s new format as rich with possibilities, able to track current trends and, once old editions are digitized, to trace the history of a given topic over time. In a hallway of the Chicago headquarters, Hoiberg points out a set of copperplate engravings from the encyclopedia’s first edition, depicting the topics of midwifery and childbirth in graphic detail—private parts, forceps, and all. Legend has it that a member of King George III’s government was so outraged, he urged every encyclopedia owner to rip the illustrations out of their sets. As Hoiberg knows, when you give birth to something new, people are bound to react.


1971: Hoiberg enrolls at UChicago.

1978: On a hiatus from his studies, he becomes an index editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica.

1983: Hoiberg starts work on the Concise Encyclopaedia Britannica in Chinese.

1993: Hoiberg finishes his dissertation on the traditional Chinese opera The Broken-Down Kiln.

1997: As Britannica’s focus shifts to its web-based encyclopedia, he becomes editor in chief.

2006: He participates in a Wall Street Journal e-mail debate with Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales.

2012: Britannica announces that publication of the print volumes will cease; Hoiberg writes that his company is “proudly in the digital camp.”