Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Digital thinking tools for better decision making
Digital thinking tools for better decision making

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3 A short history of encyclopedias

The idea of gathering together all human knowledge goes back a long time, at least as far as ancient writers such as Pliny and Aristotle. During the Middle Ages, many encyclopedias were compiled by Muslim, Chinese and European authors (Figure 3).

A cover of a medieval astronomer measuring the positions of celestial bodies
Figure 3 The cover of a 14th-century encyclopedia The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, by Al-Nuwayri. The original book was 30 volumes long, and covered subjects as diverse as clouds, flamingos, hair dyeing and radishes.

The invention of printing made it possible for many more copies of encyclopedias to be produced. The word encyclopedia seems to have been used first in 1559, when Pavao Skalić published his Encyclopaedia, or Knowledge of the World of Disciplines (Figure 4).

The title page of Skalić’s encyclopedia (1559)
Figure 4 The title page of Skalić’s encyclopedia (1559)

The 18th century brought the first modern encyclopaedias. One of the best-known is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published in Edinburgh 1768–1771.

From its original three volumes, the Britannica [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] has grown today to 40 million words, covering about half a million subjects. From 2010 it was no longer produced in printed form and has become an online encyclopedia.

Activity 6 Visit Britannica

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Visit Encyclopaedia Britannica online and browse some of the ‘Trending Articles’.

Traditionally, modern encyclopedias like the Britannica set out to be authoritative (Figure 5). Most articles were written by recognised experts in their field. The more than 4000 contributors have included 110 Nobel prize-winners. Britannica and similar encyclopedias became famous as reliable sources of trustworthy information, a sort of ‘gold standard’.

Advertisement for the 11th edition of the Britannica
Figure 5 Advertisement for the 11th edition of the Britannica, with a headline emphasising its status as a reliable reference source.

With the rise of the internet, a different kind of encyclopedia emerged. The best known of these is Wikipedia, which started in 2001, but there are many others, often specialising in particular subject areas.