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The practice of encyclopedism dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Marcus Terentius Varro's (116–27 BCE) Nine Books of Discipline (Disciplinarum libri IX) is one of the earliest known examples, but no copies survived the Dark Ages. The oldest extant encyclopedia is Pliny the Elder's Natural History (c. 77–79 CE).
Whereas Wikipedia is written by millions of people and Encyclopaedia Britannica by thousands, many early encyclopedias were the product of a single encyclopedist. Such was the case with Pliny, who included a description of his research in the introduction to the Natural History:
...in Thirty-six Books I have comprised 20,000 Things that are worthy of Consideration, and these I have collected out of about 2000 Volumes that I have diligently read (and of which there are few that Men otherwise learned have ventured to meddle with, for the deep Matter therein contained), and those written by one hundred several excellent Authors ; besides a Multitude of other Matters, which either were unknown to our former Writers, or Experience has lately ascertained.
In the Middle Ages encyclopedias were typically written by or for the Church, which possessed not only power and resources but also represented one of the best educated social classes at the time.
The era in which the word "encyclopedism" became part of the popular vocabulary—and one of the most important time periods in the history of encyclopedias—was during the French Enlightenment. L'Encyclopedie of the late 18th century, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D'Alembert, presented a marked turning point. Not only did it present a largely secular worldview, drawing the ire of several Church officials, it also sought to empower the working class with knowledge, playing a role in fomenting dissent leading up to the French Revolution.
Once solely for society's elites, in the 19th and 20th centuries encyclopedias were increasingly written, marketed to, and purchased by middle and working class households. Different styles of encyclopedism emerged which would target particular age groups, presenting the works as educational tools—even made available through payment plans advertised on TV.
One of the earliest individuals to advocate for a technologically enhanced encyclopedia indexing all the world's information was H. G. Wells. Inspired by the possibilities of microfilm, he put forward his idea of a global encyclopedia in the 1930s through a series of international talks and his essay World Brain.
It would be another several decades before the earliest electronic encyclopedias were published in the 1980s and 1990s. The production of electronic encyclopedias began as conversions of printed work, but soon added multimedia elements, requiring new methods of content gathering and presentation. Early applications of hypertext similarly had a great benefit to readers but did not require significant changes in writing. The launching of Wikipedia in the 2000s and its subsequent rise in popularity and influence, however, radically altered popular conception of the ways in which an encyclopedia is produced (collaboratively, openly) and consumed (ubiquitously).
The history of encyclopedias is filled with unattributed copying of past work. Parts of Pliny's Natural History, for example, can be found in dozens of other encyclopedias even today. The first encyclopedia printed in America, Dobson's Encyclopedia, was almost entirely a copy of the 3rd edition of Britannica.
Pioneered by Diderot and D'Alembert, several other encyclopedists and authors of articles have used their work as a venue for activism. Conservapedia and SourceWatch are two recent examples of internet encyclopedias with ideologically motivated editorial and content policies.
- Smiraglia, Richard (2014). The Elements of Knowledge Organization. Cham (Switzerland): Springer.
- Pliny. (1847). Pliny's Natural History. In thirty-seven books (P. Holland, Trans.). London. Available online at http://archive.org/details/plinysnaturalhis00plinrich