Compendiums of Everything

A brief history of the modern encyclopedia


It is easy to marvel at the ridiculous success of Wikipedia. Rivaling the Encyclopædia Brittanica in accuracy (and this despite its early anything-goes reputation), its 30 million articles are collectively the sixth most popular website in the world.

We can just as easily shake our heads at any reference work whose entries on recent television shows dwarf those on African nations. Wikipedia is, as they say, what it is—ourselves reflected back at us. Don’t shoot the messenger.

But despite their impact, Wikipedia and the crowdsourcing it harnesses do not represent the Internet’s most innovative change to the way knowledge is compiled and distributed. This dawned on me after reading an excellent article (paywalled, unfortunately) by Griffith University professor Richard Yeo. To clarify, this may not be Yeo’s conclusion. But it does seem to emerge from the fascinating history of encyclopedias he tells.

Natural histories, bestiaries, and the like have been with us since ancient times, intended as curriculums of study for the highly educated. As Yeo explains, the very term encyclopedia once referred to the “learning that an educated person was expected to pursue and achieve in a lifetime.”

Then in the 18th century, with scientific knowledge rapidly expanding, an educated person could no longer be reasonably expected to learn everything worth knowing. Human knowledge in general, even tidily summarized, had grown too unwieldy to be grasped by a single mind. The idea of an encyclopedia as a reference work—one capable of competing with or even replacing the home library, offering the wheat without the chaff—took hold. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie aimed to “collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come.”

For the first time, the “men with whom we live” were no longer restricted to the educated elite (though to be fair, simply being able to read in the 18th century put you among the elite). No, these new encyclopedias were commercial publications, written not in Latin but in vernacular tongues like French and English. And entries were ordered alphabetically, practically guaranteeing readers a choose-your-own-adventure learning experience.

Naturally, the unfettered access to knowledge caused publishers some consternation. Ephraim Chambers, publisher of the 1728 English-language Cyclopedia, imagined two sorts of readers. Educated ones could be trusted to use the encyclopedia to broaden their knowledge, or perhaps just to brush up on rusty material. “But the novice reader was at risk of being cast out to sea without a compass,” writes Yeo, “because he did not know the parameters of various subjects.”

Still, until recently it hasn’t been quite fair to describe the access to knowledge that encyclopedias—or libraries, for that matter—provide as “unfettered.” That’s because switching from one entry to another, from one source to another, involved flipping through pages and volumes, with a few detours—like “feline: see cat”—along the way. Any given piece of information, after all, was generally only stored once.

This, more than gatekeeping or expertise—indeed allowing and amplifying the loss of gatekeeping and expertise—is what the Internet has put an end to. With page (and shelf) space no longer at a premium, and hyperlinks and search engines seamlessly capable of traversing it, information can now be stored everywhere it is relevant—if not physically, then for all intents and purposes. The knowledge we seek can be found through an infinite number of doors.

Not unlike, it strikes me, the knowledge we already have. Cognitive psychologists often conceive of our understanding of the world as an intricate, ever-shifting network of words and concepts, each node bound to many other nodes—in some conceptions, to every other node. Thoughts of cats lead us to dogs and mammals and life, to teeth and mice and death, to rats and hats and chats, to Dr. Seuss and childhood and nightmares. With the Internet serving as an almost frictionless extension of our minds, we can fill in almost any nodes that are fuzzy or missing. Given this, what hope do we have, really, of clicking just one link?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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