Encyclopedias Past and Present


How have encyclopedias changed over time? Robert Collison’s 1964 study Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages charted the development of encyclopedias from the ancient world to the twentieth century, showing how they progressed from being expensive handwritten works for learned readers to cheaper printed books for the general public. But Collinson wrote before the spread of the personal computer and the Internet, let alone Wikipedia and Google. In 2012 Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that after 244 years in existence it would no longer produce a printed encyclopedia so that it could focus exclusively on its digital version. How do these recent developments fit into the longer history of encyclopedias? Have changes in format and medium fundamentally altered the definition of an encyclopedia?

Encyclopedic origins

The word encyclopedia comes from the classical Greek “ἐvκυκλοπαιδεία” enkyklios paideia meaning general education. Copyists of Latin manuscripts accidentally reduced it into a single word, enkykliospaideia.The word encyclopedia was first used as a noun by the Croatian encyclopedist Pavao Skalié in the title of his book, Encyclopaedia seu orbis disciplinarum tam sacrarum quam prophanarum epistemon (Encyclopaedia, or Knowledge of the World of Disciplines, Basel, 1559)


Title page of Pliny's Natural history, with decorative border of dolphins and illustration of St. Michael lancing dragon (From: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b41344.)
Title page of Pliny’s Natural history, with decorative border of dolphins and illustration of St. Michael lancing dragon (From: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b41344.)

Ever before the term was used, there were written works that could be considered encyclopedic in their scope, such as the Nine Books of Disciplines by Marcus Terentius Varro and Historia naturalis by Pliny the Elder. Varro (116-27 B.C.), an ancient Roman scholar and writer, had a clear concept of the organization of knowledge, which he divided according to the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. He had a great influence on later encyclopedias, including Pliny’ s Historia naturalis (AD 77-79), a work of 2,500 chapters in 37 books. Pliny’ s work served as model for encyclopedias for more than fifteen hundred years (Collison 25).

Encyclopedia making was not limited to Europe. China and the Arab world also produced encyclopedic works before modern times. Zhang Hua (232-300) examined literature from all over China to compile an encyclopedia of 400 books and presented it to emperor Wu of the Ch’in Dynasty(264-90). The oldest Arabic encyclopedia was compiled by Al-Khawarizmi, a Persian scholar and statesman, under the title key to sciences ( Mafatih al-ulum) in the years 975-997 (Collison 39).

At the beginning of its history, encyclopedias were designed for continuous reading rather than for only consultation. They were handwritten and thus rare and expensive. They were read by intellectual scholars, religious men, or rulers from the first page to the last (Collison 21). During the ancient and medieval ages encyclopedia making developed in three main areas: the western world, the Arab world and China. These three great streams of encyclopedias developed independently without signs of inspiration or cooperation. This was quite probably due to the religious aspects of these early encyclopedias, as most of them were based on religious and divine knowledge (Collison 42).

Medieval Encyclopedias: dependent on divine knowledge?

The Speculum maius by Vincent of Beauvais (Exemplaire de dédicace, Paris, 1333. Paris, BnF. )  (From: http://classes.bnf.fr/dossitsm/gc85-48.htm.)
The Speculum maius by Vincent of Beauvais
(Exemplaire de dédicace, Paris, 1333.
Paris, BnF. )
(From: http://classes.bnf.fr/dossitsm/gc85-48.htm.)

During the medieval period, Vincent of Beauvais (c.1190 – 1264), a Dominican friar, compiled one of the outstanding encyclopedias of the Middle Ages under the title Speculum maius (The Great Mirror). The encyclopedia is divided into 32 books and 3718 chapters. It is an immense survey of the knowledge of the Middle Ages which served for many years as the world’s major encyclopedia. It was translated into French, Spanish, German, Dutch and even Catalan (Collison 60). The Speculum was followed by other encyclopedias that reflected their times, such as the French Raol Ardent’ s encyclopedia, Speculum universale (The Universal Mirror, 12th century), and Honorius Inclusus’s Mirror of the World,12th century (Sullivan 319).

However, most medieval encyclopedias were regarded as subservient to holy books and theology. Their arrangement was based on the liberal arts as defined in the divine scriptures which placed divine matters before secular ones. Thus, their effectiveness and developments were limited in respect to their arrangement and their subject matter (Collison 44).

By the Late Middle Ages, Europe witnessed wide geographic and economic expansion and discovered unknown places, people, animals and objects. As a result, the classification of human knowledge changed, resulting in new kinds of encyclopedias. Secular ideas gained more importance in these works. And by the 15th century, as Lawrence Sullivan has shown, encyclopedists began to write for a wider public and to abandon the theological framework within which they had previously been obliged to work (Sullivan 316).

Renaissance Encyclopedias and printing

During the Renaissance, the advent of printing enabled the wider diffusion of encyclopedias; more scholars could afford to have their own copies. George Reisch produced his Margarita Philosophica in 1503. It was a complete encyclopedia that explained the seven liberal arts. Another encyclopedist that influenced the future of encyclopedia making was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon ‘s encyclopedia was divided into three main divisions: External Nature, Man, and Man’s Action on Nature. His work was never finished because of his untimely death. However the mass of material that he had collected for his encyclopedia was published posthumously as the Sylva Sulvarum. And the effect of his plan on prominent works, such as the Encyclopédie, was quite clear.

The title page of The Margarita Philosophica (1503) by Gregor Reisch. (From:  http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.fr/2006/12/margarita-philosophica.html.)
The title page of The Margarita Philosophica (1503) by Gregor Reisch. (From: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.fr/2006/12/margarita-philosophica.html.)

Modern Encyclopedias had all the encyclopedic features?

Encyclopedias especially flourished during the Enlightenment due to the emergence of the modern idea of intellectual exchange and the use of reason and skepticism to challenge tradition. In 1704, John Harris (C. 1666-1719), published the Lexicon technicalor, An universal English dictionary of the arts and sciences, the first modern encyclopedia that emphasized practical and scientific subjects and the first alphabetical encyclopedia written in English. It featured engraved plates with drawings and diagrams, and bibliographies for some important scientific subjects. Inspired by Harris’s encyclopedia, Ephraim Chambers (1680–1740) compiled a more comprehensive work, the Cyclopedia or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728) which was distinguished by its use of an elaborate system of cross-references and for covering more of the humanities than Harris’s work. Chambers is often considered the father of the modern encyclopedia (Collison 99-103).

Chambers’ s Cyclopedia in turn inspired Denis Diderot and the French philosophers, who produced the Encyclopédie between 1751 and 1772. It was the largest encyclopedia ever achieved in Europe at that time. Diderot’ s aim was to change the way people think and disseminate the world’s knowledge to the public and future generations. The venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica was also patterned on Harris’s and Diderot s works. It was first published in Scotland between 1768 and 1771 and was periodically revised until the last printed version was released in 2012 (it is still available online). According to Robert Collison, by the end of 18th century, encyclopedias had developed all the features and norms of the genre recognized today: “the reliance on published authority, the attempt to give overall coverage, the intense preoccupation with classification, the introduction of the encyclopedic dictionary and the use of alphabetic arrangement for this purpose, and the use of collaboration”(Collison 42)

Title Page of Diderot's Encyclopédie (1751-76). (From: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ENC_1-NA5_600px.jpeg )
Title Page of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751-76). (From: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ENC_1-NA5_600px.jpeg )

wikiWhat about Electronic Encyclopedias ?

During the 19th and 20th centuries, encyclopedias proliferated in both number and variety. Specialized encyclopedias on topics from antiquity to the present had larger success. Some of these include: The Encyclopedia of World Art (1959-68), The Mc Graw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1960), and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980). Encyclopedias are produced for all levels ranging from children’ s encyclopedias to specialized scientific encyclopedias. Almost all the western nations had their own substantial encyclopedias. By the late 20th century, encyclopedias appeared on CD-ROMs for use with personal computers. In 1993, Microsoft launched its Encarta which is a CD-ROM encyclopedia that has no printed equivalent. And for the first time, encyclopedias could include both audio and video files as well as high quality images.

The creation of the world wide web in the 1990s led to the publication online of many general and specialized encyclopedias. In 2001, the English Wikipedia was started, which has since become the world’ s largest encyclopedia. It has over three million articles in more than 80 languages. Wikipedia was revolutionary not only because it was freely accessible online but also because anybody could log in and add or modify articles. Articles include graphics and videos, and internal and external links to similar topics or additional resources. However, Wikipedia is also criticized. Because anyone can edit a Wikipedia article, it contains mistakes and errors. Moreover, information can be manipulated or vandalized. Thus, students and researchers cannot rely exclusively on such sources of information.

Printed or electronic ?

Encyclopedias are generally characterized by their alphabetical structure and evolving nature. As such they are more adaptable to a digital format. Online encyclopedias are dynamic as new information can be presented immediately rather than waiting for the next edition of a disk or a paper based encyclopedia. Furthermore, digitization can provide a means to preserve this mass of information and reduce the need for physical storage space.

Studying the story of the inception and evolution of encyclopedias shows that their form and content have changed along with the changes that humanity have witnessed. While printing assured the preservation and dissemination of encyclopedias, digitization made the spread of knowledge an instant and constant process. The change in their format and structure does not change their purpose or meaning. Either printed or electronic, encyclopedias are essential recordings of information and audacious undertakings of comprehensive knowledge.


-[Britannica editors], « Change: It’s okay. Really, » Britannica Blog 13 March 2012, http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2012/03/change/ (accessed 20 March 2014).

-Collison, Robert. Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages (New York: Hafner, 1964).

– Sullivan, Lawrence, E.  « Circumscribing Knowledge: Encyclopedias in Historical Perspective, » The Journal of Religion 70, No. 3 (Jul., 1990): 315-339.

– Wagner, David Paul. “A Short History of the Greatest Encyclopedias of Past and Present, »

http://www.publishinghistory.com/encyclopedias.html (accessed 28 November 2013).

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