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  • Out of Print
  • Sara Dreyfuss (bio)

If you were born before 1980 or worked in almost any library before about 2010, you probably remember print encyclopedias. They were staples of the library reference desk and a proud fixture of most middle-class American homes. Each encyclopedia consisted of a set of handsomely bound volumes that filled most of a shelf and promised to provide answers to virtually any question. Among the most popular were Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Collier’s, the three generally regarded as “adult encyclopedias” and sometimes collectively referred to as “the ABC’s.” Another staple of the reference desk, and long the best-selling encyclopedia in the United States, was World Book.1

Today, print encyclopedias are nearly extinct, gone the way of the 3-cent postage stamp and the eight-team baseball league. Collier’s ended its print edition in 1997. Americana stopped the presses for good in 2006, and Britannica announced in 2012 that the 2010 edition would be the last published on paper.2 Today, only World Book continues to publish a new edition of its print encyclopedia each year. But many people think that the 2017 edition of World Book, its centennial edition, may well be its last.

Print encyclopedias died a natural death, for numerous practical reasons. As technology writer John Paul Titlow explained in 2012:

So many things about printed encyclopedias seem insane now. The space that dozens of volumes takes up. How much an entire set weighs (well over 100 pounds). The fact that many middle class families used to have to pay for them in regular installments. How slowly they are updated with new information.3

Yet readers, libraries, and even our society as a whole were richer for having print encyclopedias, and we should mourn their passing.

A Product of the Enlightenment

The first encyclopedias that we would recognize as such appeared in the 1700s, during a period of intense intellectual activity called the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment emphasized reason and scientific inquiry, and encyclopedias were a logical outcome [End Page 441] of such thinking. Early encylopedists wanted to gather knowledge from the foremost thinkers of the day and put it into a set of books small enough to be owned and read by individuals, enabling people to find answers for themselves.

Ephraim Chambers, an English mapmaker, published his two-volume Cyclopaedia, or the Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, in 1728. It resembled a dictionary more than an encyclopedia, but it included articles written by experts, was arranged in alphabetical order, and had cross-references to aid the search for information.4

In France, author Denis Diderot and mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert began to translate Chambers’s Cyclopaedia into French but soon decided to produce a much more ambitious work of their own. In 1751, they brought out the first volume of their Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia or rational dictionary of sciences, arts and trades). The Encyclopédie aimed, Diderot explained, to change the way people thought. It advocated tolerance, opposed religious fanaticism, and promoted rational inquiry. Such leading intellectuals as the mathematician Condorcet, the physicist Leonhard Euler, and the philosophers Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire all contributed articles to the Encyclopédie, which was published in 35 huge folio volumes between 1751 and 1780.5

The Encyclopédie had enormous impact. Through its attempt to classify learning and convey the sum of human knowledge to its readers, it helped spread some of the most important intellectual and social developments of its time. It became the model for nearly all future encyclopedias.

Publishers in other countries soon brought out their own encyclopedias. “A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland” published the Encyclopædia Britannica in three volumes from 1768 to 1771.6 Two German publishers, Gotthelf Renatus Löbel and Christian Wilhelm Francke, brought out the Conversations-Lexikon mit vorzüglicher Rücksicht auf die gegenwärtigen Zeiten (Conversational encyclopedia with particular consideration of the present times) in five volumes from 1796 to 1808. In 1809, the bookseller Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus acquired the Conversations-Lexikon and expanded it into Der Große Brockhaus, later...


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