An encyclopedia, encyclopaedia or (traditionally) encyclopædia, is a comprehensive written compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge or a particular branch of knowledge. The word comes from the Classical Greek ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία (pron. enkyklos paideia), literally 'the things of boys/child in a circle', meaning "a general knowledge."
In ancient times encyclopedias were teaching tools for instruction of the aristocracy. They were compiled by teachers and their schools, and they were arranged by subject matter rather than as an alphabetical reference work. In the Middle Ages in the Holy Roman Empire knowledge was largely controlled by the Church and encyclopedias were kept by religious scholars in conformity with church doctrine.
The modern alphabetical encyclopedia evolved in the context of the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. It is a reference work ordered like an expanded dictionary and is designed to be available to everyone. The first modern type encyclopedia, compiled by teams of scholars, arranged alphabetically, and composing 20-30 volumes, was produced by Denis Diderot in France, with the expressed purpose of disseminating Enlightenment ideas and the new advances in scientific knowledge to a wide audience. In so doing, it effectively undermined the Church's traditional monopoly on knowledge.
Modern encyclopedias, by making the sum of knowledge available to all citizens, are designed to be tools for democracy. The Encyclopedia Britannica, became the premier standard for encyclopedias in the nineteenth century as it integrated scientific and traditional knowledge. However, it too was charged with cultural bias, and after its eleventh edition, the Britannica began producing a more scientistic collection of facts and data with greatly reduced entries on biography and social sciences. As knowledge has increased exponentially over the last century, modern encyclopedias contained annual updates to attempt to keep their owners current. Modern religious encyclopedias, like the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) provided some counterbalance to the scientism of the scientific encyclopedias.
The information age led to digital encyclopedias which are not bound by the restrictions of print. They go beyond modern encyclopedias in content, size, and cross-referencing. These digital encyclopedias, produced on CD-ROM and the Internet, have almost entirely superseded print encyclopedias in the twenty-first century. Traditional encyclopedias, like the Encyclopedia Britannica, have survived by creating CD-ROM and Internet versions. However, new forms of encyclopedias, like the popular Wikipedia, have taken advantage of the Internet, which provides wide accessibility and the possibility of harnessing a huge virtual community of volunteer writers and editors to the task of creating and updating articles on every imaginable topic. These online collaborative encyclopedias are frequently charged with lack of quality control, but they have nonetheless rapidly displaced the traditional print encyclopedias because of their accessibility and breadth.
The ongoing issues related to the development of encyclopedias include the proper integration of facts and values and the quality control of the accuracy of vast bodies of information becoming available.
Though the notion of a compendium of knowledge dates back thousands of years, the term was first used in the title of a book in 1541 by Joachimus Fortius Ringelbergius in the title page of his Lucubrationes vel potius absolutissima kyklopaideia (Basel 1541). It was first used as a noun by the encyclopedist Pavao Skalic 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). Several encyclopedias have names that include the term -p(a)edia, e.g., Banglapedia (on matters relevant for Bengal).
The encyclopedia as we recognize it today was developed from the dictionary in the eighteenth century. A dictionary primarily focuses on words and their definition, typically in one sentence. This leave the reader lacking in a comprehensive understanding of the meaning or significance of the term, and how the term relates to a broader field of knowledge.
To address those needs, an encyclopedia treats each subject in more depth and conveys the most relevant accumulated knowledge on that subject or discipline, given the overall length of the particular work. An encyclopedia also often includes many maps and illustrations, as well as bibliography and statistics. Historically, both encyclopedias and dictionaries have been researched and written by well-educated, well-informed content experts, who have attempted to make them as accurate, concise and readable as possible.
Four major elements define an encyclopedia: its subject matter, its scope, its method of organization, and its method of production.
Some works titled "dictionaries" are actually more similar to encyclopedias, especially those concerned with a particular field (such as the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, and Black's Law Dictionary). The Macquarie Dictionary, Australia's national dictionary, became an encyclopedic dictionary after its first edition in recognition of the use of proper nouns in common communication, and the words derived from such proper nouns.
The idea of collecting all of the world's knowledge into a single work was an elusive vision for centuries. The earliest encyclopedia may have been compiled by the Greek philosopher Speusippus, who preceded Aristotle. But Aristotle is sometimes called the father of encyclopedias because of his vast collection and categorization of knowledge, most of which remains valid today. The oldest complete encyclopedia in existence was the Historia Naturalis compiled by Pliny the Elder about 79 C.E. It is a 37-volume account of the natural world in 2,493 chapters that was extremely popular in western Europe for over 1,500 years.
The first Christian encyclopedia was Cassiodorus' Institutiones (560 C.E.) which inspired Saint Isidore of Seville's Etymologiarum, sive Originum Libri XX (Twenty Books of Etymologies, or Origins) (623) which became the most influential encyclopedia of the Early Middle Ages. The Bibliotheca by the Patriarch Photius (ninth century) was the earliest Byzantine work that could be called an encyclopedia. Bartholomeus de Glanvilla's De proprietatibus rerum (1240) was the most widely read and quoted encyclopedia in the High Middle Ages while Dominican Friar Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum Majus (1260) was the most ambitious encyclopedia in the late-medieval period at over three million words.
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, the Brethren of Sincerity's Encyclopedia, 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.
The Chinese emperor Yongle 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 remain today. 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 four 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. Encyclopedic works, both in imitation of Chinese encyclopedias and as independent works of their own origin, have been known to exist in Japan since the ninth century C.E.
These works were all hand copied and thus rarely available, beyond wealthy patrons or monastic men of learning: they were expensive, and usually written for those extending knowledge rather than those using it (with some exceptions in medicine).
The beginnings of the modern idea of the general-purpose, widely distributed printed encyclopedia precede the eighteenth-century encyclopedists. However, Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, and the Encyclopédie, Encyclopædia Britannica, and the Conversations-Lexikon were the first to realize the form we would recognize today, with a comprehensive scope of topics, discussed in depth and organized in an accessible, systematic method.
The English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne specifically employed the word encyclopaedia as early as 1646 in the preface to the reader to describe his Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors, a series of refutations of common errors of his age. Browne structured his encyclopaedia upon the time-honored 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 went through no less than five editions, each revised and augmented, the last edition appearing in 1672. Pseudodoxia Epidemica 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.
John Harris is often credited with introducing the now-familiar alphabetic format in 1704 with his English Lexicon technicum. Organized alphabetically, it sought to explain not merely the terms used in the arts and sciences, but the arts and sciences themselves. Sir Isaac Newton contributed his only published work on chemistry to the second volume of 1710. Its emphasis was on science and, at about 1200 pages, its scope was more that of an encyclopedic dictionary than a true encyclopedia. Harris himself considered it a dictionary; the work is one of the first technical dictionaries in any language. However, the alphabetical arrangement made encyclopedias ready reference tools in which complete books or chapters did not have to be read to glean knowledge. They became a mainstay of modern general encyclopedias.
Ephraim Chambers published his Cyclopaedia in 1728. It included a broad scope of subjects, used an alphabetic arrangement, relied on many different contributors and included the innovation of cross-referencing other sections within articles. Chambers has been referred to as the father of the modern encyclopedia for this two-volume work.
A French translation of Chambers' work inspired the Encyclopédie, perhaps the most famous early encyclopedia, notable for its scope, the quality of some contributions, and its political and cultural impact in the years leading up to the French revolution. The Encyclopédie was edited by Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot and published in 17 volumes of articles, issued from 1751 to 1765, and 11 volumes of illustrations, issued from 1762 to 1772. While Diderot did the final editing on all the work itself, this encyclopedia gained its breadth and excellence over the Chambers encyclopedia by employing a team of writers on the social philosophy including Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Five volumes of supplementary material and a two volume index, supervised by other editors, were issued from 1776 to 1780 by Charles Joseph Panckoucke.
Realizing the inherent problems with the model of knowledge he had created, Diderot's view of his own success in writing the "Encyclopédie" were far from ecstatic. Diderot envisioned the perfect encyclopedia as more than the sum of its parts. In his own article on the encyclopedia Diderot wrote, "Were an analytical dictionary of the sciences and arts nothing more than a methodical combination of their elements, I would still ask whom it behooves to fabricate good elements." Diderot viewed the ideal encyclopedia as an index of connections. He realized that all knowledge could never be amassed in one work, but he hoped the relations between subjects could. The realization of the dream in becoming more a reality with information age methods of hyper-linking electronic encyclopedias.
The Encyclopédie in turn inspired the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica, which had a modest beginning in Scotland: the first edition, issued between 1768 and 1771, had just three hastily completed volumes—A-B, C-L, and M-Z—with a total of 2,391 pages. By 1797, when the third edition was completed, it had been expanded to 18 volumes addressing a full range of topics, with articles contributed by a range of authorities on their subjects.
The Conversations-Lexikon was published in Leipzig from 1796 to 1808, in six volumes. Paralleling other eighteenth century encyclopedias, the scope was expanded beyond that of earlier publications, in an effort to become comprehensive. But the work was intended not for scientific use, but to give the results of research and discovery in a simple and popular form without extended details. This format, a contrast to the Encyclopædia Britannica, was widely imitated by later nineteenth century encyclopedias in Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Of the influential late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century encyclopedias, the Conversations-Lexikon is perhaps most similar in form to today's encyclopedias.
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 (1802–1819) 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.
The 17-volume Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle and its supplements were published in France from 1866 to 1890.
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 early twentieth century, the Encyclopædia Britannica reached its eleventh edition (considered by many the zenith of modern print encyclopedias), and inexpensive encyclopedias such as Harmsworth's Encyclopaedia and Everyman's Encyclopaedia were common.
In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of several large popular encyclopedias, often sold on installment plans. The best known of these were World Book and Funk and Wagnalls.
The second half of the twentieth century also saw the publication of several encyclopedias that were notable for synthesizing important topics in specific fields, often by means of new works authored by significant researchers. Such encyclopedias included The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published in 1967 and now in its second edition), and Elsevier's Handbooks In Economics series. Encyclopedias of at least one volume in size exist for most if not all Academic disciplines, including, typically, such narrow topics such as bioethics and African American history.
By the late twentieth century, the information age was beginning to stimulate an entirely new generation of encyclopedias based on digital, electronic, and computer technology. Initially, traditional encyclopedia makers began offering electronics forms of their encyclopedias on CD-ROMs for use with personal computers. Microsoft's Encarta was a landmark in this sea change, as it had no print version. Articles were supplemented with video and audio files as well as numerous high-quality images. The development of hyperlinking greatly aided cross referencing, making quick transitions from one subject to the next. In addition, nearly instantaneous searches of thousands of articles, using keyword technology, are possible.
With the development of the Internet, similar encyclopedias were also being published online, and made available by subscription. Most libraries stopped buying print encyclopedias at this point, because the online encyclopedias were constantly revised, making the cumbersome and expensive purchase of annual additions and new editions obsolete.
Traditional encyclopedias are written by a number of employed text writers, usually people with an academic degree, but the interactive nature of the Internet allowed for the creation of collaborative projects such as Nupedia, Everything2, Open Site, and Wikipedia, some of which allowed anyone to add or improve content. Wikipedia, begun as an on-line collaborative free encyclopedia with wiki software was begun in 2001 and already had more than two million articles in more than 80 languages with content licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License by 2005. However Wikipedia's articles are not necessarily peer reviewed and many of those articles may be considered to be of a trivial nature. Concerns have been raised as to the accuracy of information generated through open source projects generally. The New World Encyclopedia attempts to improve on this quality control weakness by offering more specialized and supervised on-line collaboration.
It is often said that "knowledge is power" or "those who control education control the future." Before the invention of the printing press, and the development of primary schools to educate masses, knowledge remained in the hands of the aristocracy and the churches. Only the wealthy families were able to afford tutors like Aristotle.
Throughout history, people have sought to control others by enforcing official thought and punishing heresy. The destruction of the great ancient Alexandria Library, the canonization of the Bible in the fourth century C.E., the genocide against the Cathars and Albigenses of Southern France in the thirteenth century, the burning of Jan Hus in Bohemia in 1415, Savonarola's "Bonfire of the Vanities' (destruction of works of art) in Florence in 1497, in Michael Servetus' execution for a "false view of the Trinity" in Geneva in 1553, the banishment of Roger Williams from Massachussetts in 1635, the Catholic ban on Copernicus' theory of a heliocentric universe in 1757, the elimination of sociology from the University of Moscow in 1923 with the pronouncement that "Marxism-Leninism had said the final word on the subject, and the Taliban ban on education of women and their obliteration of great Buddhist works of art at the end of the twentieth, are only a few of the notorious examples of repression of knowledge. Millions of people have been killed in the effort by oppressors to control knowledge.
Encyclopedias and education of the masses are attempts to break the yoke of imposed thought control and allow all people the knowledge required to pursue a life of happiness, prosperity and peace on more equal terms. Nevertheless, encyclopedias have been criticized for their own attempts to distort knowledge, just as political groups continue to control the curriculum of public schools in an attempt to shape social consciousness. Enlightenment encyclopedias were accused of promoting Enlightenment values by both traditional religious institutions that were threatened by them, as well as scientists that argued the social philosophy of the encyclopedists was unproven or faulty. The Britannica was accused of imposing the values of British aristocracy.
The reaction to this was the attempt to remove values from encyclopedias in the twentieth century. This created a form of scientism by default. "Value free" encyclopedias failed to help readers organize knowledge for a meaningful purpose, but simply presented collections of facts and data which readers were supposed to figure out how to use by themselves. This value neutrality or relativism led to a generations of people with less ability to make informed judgments, and thus a less productive society.
Contemporary philosophy accepts that value neutrality is neither possible nor desired, however the modern pluralism of cultures makes it difficult to highlight any specific values without criticism. As a result, it is becoming more standard to articulate one's values at the onset of a written work, thus defining its purpose. This very encyclopedia, the New World Encyclopedia, while associated with a believing community (namely that of Sun Myung Moon), differs from classical religious encyclopedias insofar as it seeks to provide and protect a thoroughly pluriform, multi-religious stance, and to communicate universal values in a scholarly and rigorous manner that does not posit particularistic faith affirmations or other non-universal positions as "fact." Its stance is based on the premise that there exists universal values, which can be found in the essence of all religions and non-theistic philosophical traditions; these are values that derive from efforts to bring about happiness, prosperity and peace for all.
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