Encyclopaedia Britannica – The Scholar’s Edition

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (I will call it EB from this point for brevity’s sake) is synonymous enough with the word ‘encyclopedia’ that when one is able to call it simply ‘Britannica’, with the first word of the name implied. Since it’s first appearance in the mid-18th century, it has risen to a stature enjoyed by few reference works (possibly only two others, Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, could be called its equals). This was likely due to the pioneering decision to arrange its entries by subject, something previous works had not done. It was a sad day, then, when it was announced just last year that no further print versions of the work were to be released, making the 2010 fifteenth edition the last – remaining copies of this set sold out about a month after the announcement. Current and subsequent editions will now be available in digital form only by payment of a subscription fee.

While many of us are familiar with the EB as it is today, its size and format were not always such. In fact, it has changed drastically since its birth. During its evolution, EB grew from a modest three volumes to an imposing thirty-two, the bulk of this growth occurring during the first 60 years of its life (the sixth edition of 1826 was 20 volumes). It is also interesting to note that, though each successive edition was still dubbed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the editorship and authorship changed significantly throughout its history, and many editions did not resemble previous or subsequent editions, except in general structure. Surprisingly, a separate general index was not added until the release of the seventh edition. This of course made locating specific articles much quicker.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Scholar’s Edition

Two editions of the EB still stand out as prominent examples. The ninth edition, still referred to as The Scholar’s Edition, is considered the pinnacle of the EB’s career as a scholarly work. The articles were meticulously researched, and some are the length of short books, many quite beautifully written by well-known intellectuals of the day (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson, John Muir, Algernon Swinburne, etc.). As a result, this edition is not only useful as a reference, but can be read continuously (and enjoyably) as one would a magazine or a work of nonfiction. The same can be said of the eleventh edition, which was the last edition for which all article submissions came from experts in their fields.

Little has been done in our time to promote the importance, and highlight the material differences, of the various editions of the EB. Those who dismiss its contents as outdated or compare its accessibility negatively to a Google search are missing a rather large point. It used to be that, when faced with a question, we referred to information compiled by the brightest minds available, whose contributions were edited by judicious men who took pride in their work. The wild frontier that is the internet, on the other hand, seems to be ruled by those who can shout the loudest.

The EB, and other works similar to it, have displayed the arc of human thought over an extremely important period in the history of mankind, encompassing the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the birth of globalization, and much more. While I certainly understand (though sometimes reluctantly) that not everyone has within them the desire to preserve our collective intellectual heritage, I still personally believe it to be eminently worthwhile, especially in such obvious incarnations as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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