The 2,093-page volume is under attack from those who want a slimmer version and who think that the mechanics of its compilation are unnecessarily secretive.
Lord Errol of Hale began the assault last week when he marked his 79th birthday by writing to the Times to claim that Who's Who was losing its way. 'The names included from around the world, follow, to my mind, no logical pattern of selection,' he wrote, and appealed to Who's Who to declare its aims and objectives.
Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, added his criticism, accusing Who's Who of not fulfilling its prime function.
'To be snobbish about it,' he said, 'Britain must be the only country in the world where after one has been to a dinner party of influential people, you can't find half the people who were there in any directory.'
Part of Who's Who's problem is that once somebody is included they stay until they die. So either the book grows and grows or the number of new entrants must be limited to match the death rate.
Other directories, such as Debrett's People of Today, pare away those who have dropped out of the limelight, allowing more flexibility in mirroring changes in society and getting rid of those who were 'famous for 15 minutes'. Who's Who's more cautious approach means that somebody can be a household name for years before they are included.
Thus sportsmen such as Gary Lineker and David Gower are not in the latest volume (although Graham Gooch is). Mick Jagger fails to appear, but Cliff Richard is deemed suitably famous. Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry are in; Dawn French and Lenny Henry are not.
The book also grows in size because of the editorial policy of listing all an author's works. Barbara Cartland has an entry of 199 lines; John Major rates just 15.
The 145th annual edition of Who's Who (price pounds 85), like its predecessors, is published by A & C Black, a secretive company with a turnover of pounds 6.8m whose chairman and joint managing director is Charles Black, 56. Those hoping for some guidance on the background of either Mr Black or David Gadsby, 63, the other joint managing director, will be disappointed if they look in Who's Who. Neither is listed.
The book has no editor and no named staff. The reign of the first editor, Douglas Sladen, was so autocratic that the Black family decided not to have another. Between five and 10 full-time staff - the number increases as the next issue's deadline approaches - remain anonymous.
Decisions on whom to invite to submit an entry are made by a selection board - also secret - made up of perhaps half a dozen people, who then call on experts in specialised fields to assist. Mr Gadsby said secrecy was necessary to try to protect the committee and staff from undue pressures from people desperate to be invited.
Who's Who was not fossilised, he said. 'There are changes. Look at the book 10, 20, 30 years ago and you will see the changes within it. They reflect the changes in society . . . Removing people is one way of keeping the book down. We have discussed it but haven't decided to do it.'
The secrecy and tradition does not impress Mr Brooks-Baker of Burke's, who has a rival volume to Who's Who likely to be published within the next 12 months. People will be dropped when they fall into obscurity, and the editorial team will be named and available for contact.
'I know one of the (Who's Who) committee but I can't say who it is as they are quite neurotic about it,' he added. 'It's like joining the Masons. I have no time for that sort of nonsense. Secrecy is completely ridiculous.'
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