The Glory of the Digital Encyclopedia of Surfing

Awesome scholarship, gorgeous photography, a reference for the 21st century

Andy Irons in Indonesia (Tom Servais)

In 2003, Matt Warshaw published The Encyclopedia of Surfing to heavy praise. Amazon.com editors selected it as one of the 100 best books of the year. The Los Angeles Times said it was “both the old and new testament of board-riding culture.” Salon.com called it “a living, breathing masterpiece.”

The praise was certainly justified. With 800 pages, and more 1,800 entries on the most memorable people, places, and moments in surfing history, it’s unlike anything that has been published before, or since.

While he welcomed the praise, Warshaw knew that the book wasn’t exactly living and breathing.

“As soon as the book hit the shelves I knew was dealing with something that was already getting stale,” Warshaw told me. The world changes quickly, and that includes the world of surfing. When the encyclopedia was published in 2003, Kelly Slater had a record-holding six world titles in competitive surfing. Ten years later, Slater has 11 titles, and is in the hunt for his 12th.

In Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing (EOS), Slater still only has 6 titles.

* * *

Reference books, if not fully extinct, are certainly on their last, choked gasps of breath. After a 244 year run, Encyclopedia Britannica stopped printing in 2010, and now focuses solely on its digital encyclopedia, in an effort to compete with Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article on The Size of Wikipedia claims that it is comprised of 4,337,723 articles, and if you printed Wikipedia into Britannica-sized books, you’d have an encyclopedia of 2,647 volumes.

On Wikipedia, of course, the entry on Kelly Slater credits him with his 11 world titles.

But the EOS’s challenges go beyond its immediate outdating. Even more obvious is that in the print book, there are very few images -- black and white, small, grainy images. Despite its exhaustive breadth of information, and Warshaw’s engrossing ability to remain resolutely factual while humorous and witty in his writing (he’s sort of like surfing’s Herodotus and Homer rolled into one), the book failed to celebrate surfing’s huge aesthetic appeal.

As Warshaw readily admitted, “I love the book and it still feels wonderful when I hold it in my hands, but I knew even in 2003 that it had a target on its back.”

Today, all of that changes. After three years of toil, Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing is online. And it is stunning.

The front page of the site is all images, a captivating tiling of photographs, with each one leading to its accompanying entry. The 500-word entries are now supplemented with rare and beautiful photographs, and even more exciting, original video edits that Warshaw compiled from an extensive trove of surf flicks from the last 50 years. You can delve in by clicking on one of the tiled photographs on the front page, search the site for keywords, or most charming of all, treat it like the encyclopedia that it is, and go through the entries one letter at a time.

Bye bye, productive day at the office.

“The difference between the book and the website is sort of like when Dorothy first gets to Oz,” Warshaw explained to me with obvious glee. “Her black and white world is all of the sudden in bright technicolor.”

In other words, this is much, much more than a simple e-version of a beloved book. Entries are up to date, and can be edited whenever news unfolds, so they will stay up to date. Also, new entries will be regularly added, with Warshaw aiming for 2 to 3 new entries each week.

But the true treasure is in the photographs and the videos. The digital EOS is a decidedly visual experience, one that highlights the beauty and purity of surfing in ways that the print book could have never dreamed of.

The aesthetic appeal of the site is due largely to Warshaw’s staggering reputation as surfing’s foremost historian. When Warshaw first published EOS in 2003, he was a highly-regarded surf writer. In the last decade, his esteem has grown, especially in the wake of his 2010 The History of Surfing. He is no longer simply a surf historian, he is the surf historian.

So when Warshaw wanted to add visuals to the digital version of the encyclopedia, he went first to the surf photographer, Art Brewer. Brewer’s reputation in photography parallels that of Warshaw’s in writing; he’s been involved in surfing for over 50 years, and has taken some of the most iconic surf photos of all time. When Warshaw approached Brewer to contribute to the digital EOS, it was sort of like the right hand asking the left hand to work together. And the left hand said yes.

Brewer gave Warshaw the freedom to use any of his images that he wanted, at no cost, because he believed deeply in what Warshaw was doing. “Matt’s a real purist, and he tends to be as honest as possible,” Brewer told me. “That’s what really attracted me to contributing to the digital version. Matt is not self-serving, like a lot of guys who write surf stories. He has taken the time and energy to make it credible, and I think the Encyclopedia is one of the best things that the sport has ever had.”

With Art Brewer on board, the floodgates were open, and photographers of all stripes also shared their libraries with Warshaw. The obsessive researcher that he is, he methodically databased every image and video he was given access to, and now with a quick keyword search in his database, he can retrieve countless rare photos and videos by almost any imaginable search term.

Presented by

Mark Lukach is a writer and a teacher who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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