Living in the technologically focused 21st century, we have access to more information than any generations before us. The answer to a question is often “just google it” and we hit the internet to search for our response, bearing in mind a good proportion of the information published online is not always accurate.
Before internet, a researcher could go to the library, or ask a knowledgeable friend, or consult the trusty set of encyclopaedias on the bookshelves at home. Coming from the Greek words enkyklios (general) and paideia (education), the books were designed to offer a comprehensive set of knowledge on a range of subjects. They differ from dictionaries, which only provided the origin and meaning of words.
The earliest surviving encyclopaedia was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. Published in the 1st century AD, it included 37 chapters on natural history, medicine, geology, geography and many other topics. Pliny stated he sourced the 20,000 facts published in the series from consulting 2,000 works by over 200 authors.
Encyclopaedias were out of reach for most people for centuries, remaining in the realm of academia and intended to impress writers and wealthy patrons, rather than educate the general public. Attitudes began to change in the 18th century when printing was easy and literacy was rising. General-purpose encyclopaedias began to be more commonly distributed.
One of the classics of the encyclopaedia world is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was first published in 1768, making it the oldest English language encyclopaedia still in production.
The first set was printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, and comprised three volumes of general knowledge with the first engraved illustrations completed by Andrew Bell. The encyclopaedia was very popular and the second edition covered 10 volumes, growing to 20 volumes by the time the fourth edition was produced between 1801 and 1810.
With a reputation as a scholarly work, the publication attracted more eminent writers and contributors. The ninth and eleventh editions, produced between 1875 and 1889, and 1911 respectively, are considered landmarks of scholarly literary style. After being purchased by an American company, however, Britannica began to shorten articles in order to meet the requirements of the North American market. Despite being produced in the USA, it retained British English spelling.
The fifteenth edition, published in 2010, was the last printed version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. This set spanned 32,640 pages of information in 32 volumes. Now it is solely produced online, with the help of over 4,000 contributors.
The Whanganui Regional Museum holds two sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, including a set of the prestigious ninth edition, at its scholarly peak. The second set is a tenth edition published in 1902, and belonged to Fred Symes, a Whanganui banker and prominent Mason. This set was donated with a custom built rotating wooden bookcase, specifically designed to hold the 35-volume set, and is complete with a foldout shelf on which to rest the volumes while reading.
Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.