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encyclopaedia, also spelled encyclopedia, reference work that contains information on all branches of knowledge or that treats a particular branch of knowledge in a comprehensive manner.

For more than 2,000 years encyclopaedias have existed as summaries of extant scholarship in forms comprehensible to their readers. The word encyclopaedia is derived from the Greek enkyklios paideia, “general education,” and it at first meant a circle or a complete system of learning—that is, an all-around education. When François Rabelais used the term in French for the first time, in Pantagruel (chapter 20), he was still talking of education. It was Paul Scalich, a German writer and compiler, who was the first to use the word to describe a book in the title of his Encyclopaedia; seu, Orbis disciplinarum, tam sacrarum quam prophanum epistemon… (“Encyclopaedia; or, Knowledge of the World of Disciplines, Not Only Sacred but Profane…”), issued at Basel in 1559. The many encyclopaedias that had been published before this time either had been given fanciful titles (Hortus deliciarum, “Garden of Delights”) or had been simply called “dictionary.” The word dictionary has been widely used as a name for encyclopaedias, and Scalich’s pioneer use of encyclopaedia did not find general acceptance until Denis Diderot made it fashionable with his historic French encyclopaedia, the Encyclopédie, although cyclopaedia was then becoming fairly popular as an alternative term. Even today a modern encyclopaedia may still be called a dictionary, but no good dictionary has ever been called an encyclopaedia.

The meaning of the word encyclopaedia has changed considerably during its long history. Today most people think of an encyclopaedia as a multivolume compendium of all available knowledge, complete with maps and a detailed index, as well as numerous adjuncts such as bibliographies, illustrations, lists of abbreviations and foreign expressions, gazetteers, and so on. They expect it to include biographies of the significant men and women of the present as well as those of the past, and they take it for granted that the alphabetically arranged contents will have been written in their own language by many people and will have been edited by a highly skilled and scholarly staff; nevertheless, not one of these ingredients has remained the same throughout the ages. Encyclopaedias have come in all sizes, from a single 200-page volume written by one man to giant sets of 100 volumes or more. The degree of coverage of knowledge has varied according to the time and country of publication. Illustrations, atlases, and bibliographies have been omitted from many encyclopaedias, and for a long time it was not thought fitting to include biographies of living persons. Indexes are a late addition, and most of the early ones were useless. Alphabetical arrangement was as strongly opposed as the use of any language but Latin, at least in the first 1,000 years of publication in the West, and skilled group editorship has a history of some 200 years.

In this article the word encyclopaedia has been taken to include not only the great general encyclopaedias of the past and the present but all types of works that claim to provide in an orderly arrangement the essence of “all that is known” on a subject or a group of subjects. This includes dictionaries of philosophy and of American history as well as volumes such as The World Almanac and Book of Facts, which is really a kind of encyclopaedia of current information.

An outline of the scope and history of encyclopaedias is essentially a guide to the development of scholarship, for encyclopaedias stand out as landmarks throughout the centuries, recording much of what was known at the time of publication. Many homes have no printed encyclopaedia, and very few have more than one, yet in the past two millennia several thousand encyclopaedias have been issued in various parts of the world, and some of these have had many editions. No library has copies of them all; if it were possible to collect them, they would occupy many miles of shelf space. But they are worth preserving—even those that appear to be hopelessly out-of-date—for they contain many contributions by a large number of the world’s leaders and scholars.