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. 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.” 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.

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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.

Which is how he could put together, for example, an entirely unique video clip, one that spans decades and features some of history’s famous surfers out at Lower Trestles, a surf spot in Southern California. The thing is, the video is comprised exclusively of footage from when those surfers were still in their teens. Only Matt Warshaw, with his knowledge and his database, could create a video like that. And the digital EOS has 500 more videos that are just as exceptional.

While the meat of the site is in the entries — he is launching with roughly 650 — there is also a daily blog feature to entice viewers to come back, and ultimately, dig even deeper into the site.

Early in the digitizing endeavor, Warshaw hired Justin Housman, a history grad student with an itch to get into surf writing, to help him with the project. Housman’s main roles have been to create the new entries from the last decade of surf culture, and he will also steer the site’s blog. The site’s dual achievements as a historical archive as well as a source for current commentary make it a rare species of websites, or as, as Housman puts it, “I'm not sure that there's anything like it in the world of sports media.”

Not only is it a deep archive with a potentially riveting blog, the digital EOS is also attempting to pioneer a new approach to making money as a website, a challenge that all online publishers face. The site is free, compared to the $17 that you’d pay to get a paperback copy off Amazon. There are no subscriptions and no paywalls. It is deliberately designed to be always and forever ad-free.

Instead, Warshaw is fundraising, an approach that reflects his vision for what the site accomplishes. He sees the digital EOS as a synthesis of a museum, an archive, and even a theater, and he hopes to entice patrons to fund it that way, patrons who can appreciate its value in preserving surf culture. “This site is a conservation project. The whole sport fits inside of this thing in a way that's accessible to everybody, and in a way that trims away a lot of the echo and crap. It’s a digital place where the sport can be presented, stored, celebrated, archived, and accessed. I want to appeal to people who want to see this thing looked after, and do the sport a good turn.”

“Looking after this thing” means that individual supporters can buy entries in the encyclopedia, sort of like how you might buy a brick, and put your name on it, to help build a new sports stadium. For example, if you’re a big fan of the rebellious surfer Micky Dora, you can buy his page in the EOS, and your name will be at the beginning and the end of the entry. You have no say in the content, and your contribution only secures you a year of ownership, but you’re allowed to link to any project you might be working on. This, inevitably, opens the doors for corporations to sponsor pages, but again, there is no say in editorial content. So while this approach might sound like advertising in hiding, Warshaw instead envisions it more like buying a paver at the new wing in your favorite museum. You can contribute to the digital EOS because you believe in it, not just because you have something to sell.

The digital Encyclopedia of Surfing in many ways resurrects the charm of the reference book, because even though it has gone digital in the most beautiful of ways, it still comes with an editor who holds the keys to the kingdom. Warshaw sees his role in the project first and foremost as a curator, and while Housman generates the content for new entries, Warshaw has the ultimate say over whether an entry merits inclusion in the encyclopedia.

This runs contrary to Wikipedia's approach. An outsourced version of the surfing encyclopedia would be more extensive, but it would probably look as ugly as Wikipedia, read as dry Wikipedia, rely on the same old recycled images as Wikipedia, and most of all, include a lot of the “echo and crap” that Warshaw instead filters out.

The digital EOS is not only a sophisticated temple to surf culture, it’s a fervent reminder of the glory of scholarship in an age that empowers the crowd. Accumulated amateurs do not always trump the few experts, especially when those experts so clearly have the cards stacked in their favor like Warshaw does with his database and 25 years of surf writing experience. Since Warshaw has made the site free, and is asking visitors to fund his vision, he’s turning back out to the crowd to allow them to vote with their wallets as to whether or not they see the value in his approach.

Art Brewer hated to be this hyperbolic about the site, yet he still called it “the Bible in digital form, with illustrations to go with it. If it hadn’t been done by Matt, it wouldn’t be out there. It would be just another void out there in our sport, and in our lives.”

That void has now been filled with a gem of a website that is almost as pure and beautiful as the sport of surfing itself.