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1913 advertisement for Encyclopædia Britannica.
1913 advertisement for Encyclopædia Britannica.
Brockhaus Konversations-Lexikon, 1902
Brockhaus Konversations-Lexikon, 1902

An encyclopedia (alternatively encyclopaedia/encyclopædia) is a written compendium of knowledge. The term comes from the Greek (engkuklios paideia), literally "a rounded education". Many encyclopedias are titled Cyclopaedia and the terms are interchangeable.

What an Encyclopedia is and what it is not

Encyclopedias can be general, containing articles on topics in many different fields (the English-language Encyclopædia Britannica and German Brockhaus are well-known examples), or they can specialize in a particular field (such as an encyclopedia of medicine, philosophy, or law). There are also encyclopedias that cover a wide variety of topics from a particular cultural, ethnic, or national perspective, such as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia or Encyclopedia Judaica.

Many dictionaries are encyclopedic in their range, especially those concerned with a particular field (such as the Dictionary of National Biography, the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, and Black's Law Dictionary). Encyclopedic works have been produced throughout much of human history, but the term encyclopedia was not used to refer to such works until the 16th century. The Macquarie Dictionary: Australia's National Dictionary, became an Encyclopedic Dictionary after its first edition in recognition of the use of proper nouns, signified by their initial capital letter, in common communication, and the words derived from such proper nouns.

There are two main methods of organizing encyclopedias: the alphabetical method (consisting of a number of separate articles, organised in alphabetical order), or organization by hierarchical categories. The former is the most common by far, especially for general works.

Early encyclopedic works

The idea of collecting all of the world's knowledge within arm's reach under a single roof goes back to the ancient Library of Alexandria and Pergamon. Many writers of antiquity (such as Aristotle) attempted to write comprehensively about all human knowledge. One of the most significant of these early encyclopedists was Pliny the Elder (first century C.E.), who wrote the Naturalis Historia (Natural History), a 37 volume account of the natural world that was extremely popular in Western Europe for much of the Middle Ages.

The Chinese emperor Cheng-Zu of the Ming Dynasty oversaw the compilation of the Yongle Encyclopedia, one of the largest encyclopedias in history, which was completed in 1408 and comprised over 11,000 handwritten volumes, of which only about 400 now survive. In the succeeding dynasty, emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty personally composed 40,000 poems as part of a 4.7 million page library in 4 divisions, including thousands of essays. It is instructive to compare his title for this knowledge, Watching the waves in a Sacred Sea to a Western-style title for all knowledge.

The early Muslim compilations of knowledge in the middle ages included many comprehensive works, and much development of what we now call scientific method, historical method, and citation. Notable works include Abu Bakr al-Razi's encyclopedia of science, the Mutazilite Al-Kindi's prolific output of 270 books, and Ibn Sina's medical encyclopedia, which was a standard reference work for centuries. Also notable are works of universal history (or sociology) from Asharites, al-Tabri, al-Masudi, Ibn Rustah, al-Athir, and Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqadimmah contains cautions regarding trust in written records that remain wholly applicable today. These scholars had an incalculable influence on methods of research and editing, due in part to the Islamic practice of isnad which emphasized fidelity to written record, checking sources, and skeptical inquiry.

However, these works were rarely available to more than specialists: they were expensive, and written for those extending knowledge rather than (with some exceptions in medicine) using it.

Modern encyclopedias

The main page of the English language version of Wikipedia.
The main page of the English language version of Wikipedia.

The modern idea of the general-purpose, widely distributed printed encyclopedia precedes Denis Diderot and the 18th century encyclopedists.

The term encyclopaedia was coined by fifteenth century humanists who misread copies of their texts of Pliny and Quintilian. Although John Harris is often credited with establishing the now-familiar encyclopedia format in 1704 with his Lexicon technicum, the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne specifically employed the word encyclopaedia in the preface to his readers to describe his work Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors as early as 1646. Browne structured his encyclopaedia upon the time-honoured schemata of the Renaissance, the so-called 'scale of creation' which ascends a hierarchical ladder via the mineral, vegetable, animal, human, planetary and cosmological worlds. Browne's compendium of refutations of common errors of his age was England's first popular household encyclopaedia. Its popularity is confirmed by the fact that it went through no less than five editions, each revised and augmented, the last edition appearing in 1672. Pseudodoxia Epidemica also found itself upon the bookshelves of many educated European readers for throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was translated into the French, Dutch and German languages as well as Latin.

Ephraim Chambers published his Cyclopaedia in 1723. The French translation of this was the inspiration of the Encyclopédie, perhaps the most famous early encyclopedia, edited by Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot and completed in 1772 - 28 volumes, 71,818 articles, 2,885 illustrations. The venerable Encyclopædia Britannica had a modest beginning in Scotland: from 1768 to 1797 three editions were published.

The early years of the nineteenth century saw a flowering of encyclopedia publishing in the United Kingdom, Europe and America. In England Rees's Cyclopaedia (18021819) contains an enormous amount in information about the industrial and scientific revolutions of the time. A feature of these publications is the high-quality illustrations made by engravers like Wilson Lowry of art work supplied by specialist draftsmen like John Farey, Jr. Encyclopaedias were published in Scotland, as a result of the Scottish Enlightenment, for education there was of a higher standard than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Encyclopædia Britannica appeared in various editions throughout the century, and the growth of popular education and the Mechanics Institutes, spearheaded by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge led to the production of the Penny Cyclopaedia, as its title suggests issued in weekly numbers at a penny each like a newspaper.

In the 20th century, Encyclopædia Britannica reached its fifteenth edition, and cheap encyclopedias such as Harmsworth's Encyclopaedia and Everyman's Encyclopaedia were common.

More recently encyclopedias are also being published online.

Traditional encyclopedias are written by a number of employed text writers, usually people with an academic degree. This is not the case with Wikipedia, a project started in 2001 with the goal to create a free encyclopedia. Anyone can add or improve text, images, and sounds. The contents are licensed under a free copyleft license (the GFDL). By 2004 the project has managed to produce over a million articles in over 80 languages.

Encyclopedias are essentially derivative from what has gone before, and particularly in the 19th century, piracy was common. To make space for modern topics, valuable material of historic use has to be discarded. But old encyclopedias should not be overlooked, especially for a record of changes in science and technology.

Encyclopedia making

The encyclopedia's hierarchical structure and evolving nature is particularly adaptable to a disk-based or on-line computer format, and all major printed encyclopedias had moved to this method of delivery by the end of the 20th century. Disk-based (typically CD-ROM format) publications have the advantage of being cheaply produced and extremely portable. Additionally, they can include media which is impossible in the printed format, such as animations, audio, and video. Hyperlinking between conceptually related items is also a significant benefit. On-line encyclopedias offer the additional advantage of being (potentially) dynamic: new information can be presented almost immediately, rather than waiting for the next release of a static format (as with a disk- or paper-based publication). Many printed encyclopedias traditionally published annual supplemental volumes or "yearbooks" to provide updates on recent events between new editions, as a partial solution to the problem of currency, but this of course requires the reader check both the main volumes and the supplemental volume(s). Some disk-based encyclopedias offer subscription-based access to online updates, which are then integrated with the content already on the user's hard disk in a manner not possible with a printed encyclopedia.

Information in a printed encyclopedia necessarily needs some form of hierarchical structure. Traditionally, the method employed is to present the information ordered alphabetically by the article title. However with the advent of dynamic electronic formats the need to impose a pre-determined structure is unnecessary. Nonetheless, most electronic encyclopedias still offer a range of organisational strategies for the articles, such as by subject area or alphabetically.

Note on spelling

Owing to differences in American and British English orthographic conventions, the spellings "encyclopaedia" and "encyclopedia" both see common use in British and Commonwealth- and American-influenced sources, respectively. (The British spelling is sometimes rendered encyclopædia, with the æ ligature). The digraph ae or æ, the normal Latin rendering of the Greek diphthong αι, is usually changed to e in American orthography, for example in other words from the root paid- such as paediatrician (American pediatrician). Contemporary British usage often makes the same simplification; in this case, though, the Oxford English Dictionary asserts that the spelling with æ "has been preserved from becoming obsolete by the fact that many of the works so called have Latin titles, as Encyclopædia Britannica", which use the spelling with æ in their names.

Both the British Oxford English Dictionary and the US Webster's Third New International Dictionary permit both spellings. The citations given in the OED are roughly evenly divided between the two spellings.

List of encyclopedias

Notable encyclopedias and encyclopedists before 1700

Encyclopedias published 1700–1800

French encyclopedias

German Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias published 1800–1900

Specialist Encyclopedias

American Encyclopedias

French Encyclopedias

Dictionnaires généraux, universels, encyclopédiques, et autres… A bibliography of French encyclopedias up to Larousse.

German Encyclopedias

Swedish Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias published 1900–2000

American Encyclopedias

Chinese Encyclopedias

French Encyclopedias

German Encyclopedias

Religious Encyclopedias

Russian Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias published 2000 onwards

Spanish Encyclopedias

Fictional Encyclopedias

See also




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