An encyclopedia (American English) or encyclopædia (British English) is a reference work or compendium providing summaries of knowledge either general or special to a particular field or discipline. Encyclopedias are divided into articles or entries that are arranged alphabetically by article name or by thematic categories, or else are hyperlinked and searchable. Encyclopedia entries are longer and more detailed than those in most dictionaries. Generally speaking, encyclopedia articles focus on factual information concerning the subject named in the article's title; this is unlike dictionary entries, which focus on linguistic information about words, such as their etymology, meaning, pronunciation, use, and grammatical forms.
Encyclopedias have existed for around 2,000 years and have evolved considerably during that time as regards language (written in a major international or a vernacular language), size (few or many volumes), intent (presentation of a global or a limited range of knowledge), cultural perspective (authoritative, ideological, didactic, utilitarian), authorship (qualifications, style), readership (education level, background, interests, capabilities), and the technologies available for their production and distribution (hand-written manuscripts, small or large print runs, Internet). As a valued source of reliable information compiled by experts, printed versions found a prominent place in libraries, schools and other educational institutions.
Indeed, the purpose of an encyclopedia is 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; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race in the future years to come.
The word encyclopedia (encyclo|pedia) comes from the Koine Greek ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, transliterated enkyklios paideia, meaning 'general education' from enkyklios (ἐγκύκλιος), meaning 'circular, recurrent, required regularly, general' and paideia (παιδεία), meaning 'education, rearing of a child'; together, the phrase literally translates as 'complete instruction' or 'complete knowledge'. However, the two separate words were reduced to a single word due to a scribal error by copyists of a Latin manuscript ion of Quintillian in 1470. The copyists took this phrase to be a single Greek word, enkyklopaedia, with the same meaning, and this spurious Greek word became the New Latin word encyclopaedia, which in turn came into English. Because of this compounded word, fifteenth-century readers and since have often, and incorrectly, thought that the Roman authors Quintillian and Pliny described an ancient genre.
This article possibly contains original research. (April 2022)
The modern encyclopedia was developed from the dictionary in the 18th century. Historically, both encyclopedias and dictionaries have been researched and written by well-educated, well-informed content experts, but they are significantly different in structure. A dictionary is a linguistic work which primarily focuses on alphabetical listing of words and their definitions. Synonymous words and those related by the subject matter are to be found scattered around the dictionary, giving no obvious place for in-depth treatment. Thus, a dictionary typically provides limited information, analysis or background for the word defined. While it may offer a definition, it may leave the reader lacking in understanding the meaning, significance or limitations of a term, and how the term relates to a broader field of knowledge.
To address those needs, an encyclopedia article is typically not limited to simple definitions, and is not limited to defining an individual word, but provides a more extensive meaning for a subject or discipline. In addition to defining and listing synonymous terms for the topic, the article is able to treat the topic's more extensive meaning in more depth and convey the most relevant accumulated knowledge on that subject. An encyclopedia article also often includes many maps and illustrations, as well as bibliography and statistics. An encyclopedia is, theoretically, not written in order to convince, although one of its goals is indeed to convince its reader of its own veracity.
There are four major elements that define an encyclopedia: its subject matter, its scope, its method of organization, and its method of production:
Some works entitled "dictionaries" are actually 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 ion in recognition of the use of proper nouns in common communication, and the words derived from such proper nouns.
There are some broad differences between encyclopedias and dictionaries. Most noticeably, encyclopedia articles are longer, fuller and more thorough than entries in most general-purpose dictionaries. There are differences in content as well. Generally speaking, dictionaries provide linguistic information about words themselves, while encyclopedias focus more on the things for which those words stand. Thus, while dictionary entries are inextricably fixed to the word described, encyclopedia articles can be given a different entry name. As such, dictionary entries are not fully translatable into other languages, but encyclopedia articles can be.
In practice, however, the distinction is not concrete, as there is no clear-cut difference between factual, "encyclopedic" information and linguistic information such as appears in dictionaries. Thus encyclopedias may contain material that is also found in dictionaries, and vice versa. In particular, dictionary entries often contain factual information about the thing named by the word.
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Encyclopedias have progressed from the beginning of history in written form, through medieval and modern times in print, and most recently, displayed on computer and distributed via computer networks, including the Internet.
The earliest encyclopedic work to have survived to modern times is the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman living in the 1st century AD. He compiled a work of 37 chapters covering natural history, architecture, medicine, geography, geology, and all aspects of the world around him. This work became very popular in Antiquity, was one of the first classical manuscripts to be printed in 1470, and has remained popular ever since as a source of information on the Roman world, and especially Roman art, Roman technology and Roman engineering.
The Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville was the first Christian writer to try to compile a summa of universal knowledge, the Etymologiae (c. 600–625), also known by classicists as the Origines (abbreviated Orig.). This encyclopedia—the first such Christian epitome—formed a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 books based on hundreds of classical sources, including the Naturalis Historia. Of the Etymologiae in its time it was said quaecunque fere sciri debentur, "practically everything that it is necessary to know". Among the areas covered were: grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, medicine, law, the Catholic Church and heretical sects, pagan philosophers, languages, cities, animals and birds, the physical world, geography, public buildings, roads, metals, rocks, agriculture, ships, clothes, food, and tools.
Another Christian encyclopedia was the Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum of Cassiodorus (543-560) dedicated to the Christian divinity and to the seven liberal arts. The encyclopedia of Suda, a massive 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, had 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often derived from medieval Christian compilers. The text was arranged alphabetically with some slight deviations from common vowel order and place in the Greek alphabet.
From India, the Siribhoovalaya (Kannada: ಸಿರಿಭೂವಲಯ), dated between 800 A.D. to 15th century, is a work of kannada literature written by Kumudendu Muni, a Jain monk. It is unique because rather than employing alphabets, it is composed entirely in Kannada numerals. Many philosophies which existed in the Jain classics are eloquently and skillfully interpreted in the work.
The enormous encyclopedic work in China of the Four Great Books of Song, compiled by the 11th century during the early Song dynasty (960–1279), was a massive literary undertaking for the time. The last encyclopedia of the four, the Prime Tortoise of the Record Bureau, amounted to 9.4 million Chinese characters in 1,000 written volumes.
There were many great encyclopedists throughout Chinese history, including the scientist and statesman Shen Kuo (1031–1095) with his Dream Pool Essays of 1088; the statesman, inventor, and agronomist Wang Zhen (active 1290–1333) with his Nong Shu of 1313; and Song Yingxing (1587–1666) with his Tiangong Kaiwu. Song Yingxing was termed the "Diderot of China" by British historian Joseph Needham.
Before the advent of the printing press, encyclopedic 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. During the Renaissance, the creation of printing allowed a wider diffusion of encyclopedias and every scholar could have his or her own copy. The De expetendis et fugiendis rebus by Giorgio Valla was posthumously printed in 1501 by Aldo Manuzio in Venice. This work followed the traditional scheme of liberal arts. However, Valla added the translation of ancient Greek works on mathematics (firstly by Archimedes), newly discovered and translated. The Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch, printed in 1503, was a complete encyclopedia explaining the seven liberal arts.
Financial, commercial, legal, and intellectual factors changed the size of encyclopedias. Middle classes had more time to read and encyclopedias helped them to learn more. Publishers wanted to increase their output so some countries like Germany started selling books missing alphabetical sections, to publish faster. Also, publishers could not afford all the resources by themselves, so multiple publishers would come together with their resources to create better encyclopedias. Later, rivalry grew, causing copyright to occur due to weak underdeveloped laws. John Harris is often cred with introducing the now-familiar alphabetic format in 1704 with his English Lexicon Technicum: Or, A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves – to give its full title. Organized alphabetically, its content does indeed contain explanation not merely of the terms used in the arts and sciences, but of the arts and sciences themselves. Sir Isaac Newton contributed his only published work on chemistry to the second volume of 1710.
The Encyclopædia Britannica, had a modest beginning in Scotland: the first ion, 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 ion 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 Encyclopædia Britannica appeared in various ions throughout the nineteenth 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.
The German-language Conversations-Lexikon was published at Leipzig from 1796 to 1808, in 6 volumes. Paralleling other 18th century encyclopedias, its scope was expanded beyond that of earlier publications, in an effort at comprehensiveness. It was, however, intended not for scholarly use but to provide results of research and discovery in a simple and popular form without extensive detail. This format, a contrast to the Encyclopædia Britannica, was widely imitated by later 19th century encyclopedias in Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Italy and other countries. Of the influential late-18th century and early-19th century encyclopedias, the Conversations-Lexikon is perhaps most similar in form to today's encyclopedias.
In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s saw the introduction of several large popular encyclopedias, often sold on installment plans. The best known of these were World Book and Funk and Wagnalls. As many as 90% were sold door to door. Jack Lynch says in his book You Could Look It Up that encyclopedia salespeople were so common that they became the butt of jokes. He describes their sales pitch saying, "They were selling not books but a lifestyle, a future, a promise of social mobility." A 1961 World Book ad said, "You are holding your family's future in your hands right now," while showing a feminine hand holding an order form.
By the late 20th century, encyclopedias were being published on CD-ROMs for use with personal computers. Microsoft's Encarta, launched in 1993, was a landmark example as it had no printed equivalent. Articles were supplemented with video and audio files as well as numerous high-quality images. After sixteen years, Microsoft discontinued the Encarta line of products in 2009.
The concept of a free encyclopedia began with the Interpedia proposal on Usenet in 1993, which outlined an Internet-based online encyclopedia to which anyone could submit content and that would be freely accessible. Early projects in this vein included Everything2 and Open Site. In 1999, Richard Stallman proposed the GNUPedia, an online encyclopedia which, similar to the GNU operating system, would be a "generic" resource. The concept was very similar to Interpedia, but more in line with Stallman's GNU philosophy.
The English Wikipedia, which was started in 2001, became the world's largest encyclopedia in 2004 at the 300,000 article stage. By late 2005, Wikipedia had produced over two million articles in more than 80 languages with content licensed under the copyleft GNU Free Documentation License. As of August 2009, Wikipedia had over 3 million articles in English and well over 10 million combined in over 250 languages. Wikipedia currently has 6,613,684 articles in English.
Since 2003, other free encyclopedias like the Chinese-language Baidu Baike and Hudong, as well as English language encyclopedias such as Citizendium and Knol have appeared, the latter of which has been discontinued.
In January 1995, Project Gutenberg started to publish the ASCII text of the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ion (1911), but disagreement about the method halted the work after the first volume.: 30 For trademark reasons this has been published as the Gutenberg Encyclopedia.: 31 Project Gutenberg later[when?] restarted work on digitising and proofreading this encyclopedia. Project Gutenberg has published volumes in alphabetic order the most recent publication is Volume 17 Slice 8: Matter–Mecklenburg published on 7 April 2013.[needs update] The latest Britannica was digitized by its publishers, and sold first as a CD-ROM, and later as an online service.
In 2001, ASCII text of all 28 volumes was published on Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition by source; a copyright claim was added to the materials included. The website no longer exists, but the contents are available from the Internet Archive.
Other websites provide online encyclopedias, some of which are also available on Wikisource, but which may be more complete than those on Wikisource, or maybe different ions (see List of online encyclopedias).
Another related branch of activity is the creation of new, free content on a volunteer basis. In 1991, the participants of the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.douglas-adams started a project to produce a real version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a fictional encyclopedia used in the works of Douglas Adams. It became known as Project Galactic Guide. Although it originally aimed to contain only real, factual articles, the policy was changed to allow and encourage semi-real and unreal articles as well. Project Galactic Guide contains over 1700 articles, but no new articles have been added since 2000; this is probably partly due to the founding of h2g2, a more official project along similar lines.
The 1993 Interpedia proposal was planned as an encyclopedia on the Internet to which everyone could contribute materials. The project never left the planning stage and was overtaken by a key branch of old printed encyclopedias.
Another early online encyclopedia was called the Global Encyclopedia. In November 1995 a review of it was presented by James Rettig (Assistant Dean of University Libraries for Reference and Information Services) College of William & Mary at the 15th Annual Charleston Conference on library acquisitions and related issues. He said of the Global Encyclopedia:
This is a volunteer effort to compile an encyclopedia and distribute it for free on the World Wide Web. If you have ever yearned to be the author of an encyclopedia article, yearn no longer. Take a minute (or even two or three if you are feeling scholarly) to write an article on a topic of your choosing and [e]mail it off to the unnamed "ors." These ors (to use that title very loosely) have generated a list of approximately 1,300 topics they want to include; to date, perhaps a quarter of them have been treated; to date, perhaps a quarter of them have been treated. ... This so-called encyclopedia gives amateurism a bad name. It is being compiled without standards or guidelines for article structure, content, or reading level. It makes no apparent effort to check the qualifications and authority of the volunteer authors. Its claim that "Submitted articles are fact-checked, corrected for spelling, and then formatted" is at best an exaggeration.
He then gives several examples of article entries such as Iowa City:
A city of approximately 60,000 people, Iowa City lies in the eastern half of Iowa. It is also the home of the University of Iowa.
Wikipedia is a free content, multilingual online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteer contributors through a model of open collaboration. It is the largest and most-read reference work in history. Wikipedia originally developed from another encyclopedia project called Nupedia.
A CD-ROM encyclopedia is an encyclopedia delivered as reference software on a CD-ROM disc for use on a personal computer. This was the usual way computer users accessed encyclopedic knowledge from the 1980s and 1990s. Later DVD discs replaced CD-ROMs and from mid-2000s internet encyclopedias became dominant and replaced disc-based software encyclopedias. Some examples of CD-ROM encyclopedia are Encarta, Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, and Britannica.
CD-ROM encyclopedias were usually a macOS or Microsoft Windows (3.0, 3.1 or 95/98) application on a CD-ROM disc. The user would execute the encyclopedia's software program to see a menu that allowed them to start browsing the encyclopedia's articles, and most encyclopedias also supported a way to search the contents of the encyclopedia. The article text was usually hyperlinked and also included photographs, audio clips (for example in articles about historical speeches or musical instruments), and video clips. In the CD-ROM age the video clips had usually a low resolution, often 160x120 or 320x240 pixels. Such encyclopedias which made use of photos, audio and video were also called multimedia encyclopedias. However, because of the online encyclopedia, CD-ROM encyclopedias have been declared obsolete.[by whom?]
An English lexicographer, H.W. Fowler, wrote in the preface to the first ion (1911) of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English language that a dictionary is concerned with the uses of words and phrases and with giving information about the things for which they stand only so far as current use of the words depends upon knowledge of those things. The emphasis in an encyclopedia is much more on the nature of the things for which the words and phrases stand.
In contrast with linguistic information, encyclopedia material is more concerned with the description of objective realities than the words or phrases that refer to them. In practice, however, there is no hard and fast boundary between factual and lexical knowledge.
An 'encyclopedia' (encyclopaedia) usually gives more information than a dictionary; it explains not only the words but also the things and concepts referred to by the words.
Usually these two aspects overlap – encyclopedic information being difficult to distinguish from linguistic information – and dictionaries attempt to capture both in the explanation of a meaning ...
The two types, as we have seen, are not easily differentiated; encyclopedias contain information that is also to be found in dictionaries, and vice versa.