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.

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary is an impressive work. In its current edition, it is roughly 22000 pages, in twenty sizable hardcover volumes, and tips the scales at 130 pounds. What makes the OED, as it is commonly called, so much different than other dictionaries? Why does it hold such a revered spot in the academic world in general, and in the field of language study specifically?

What makes it unique is the amazing level of detail available for each entry. The OED traces each word or phrase back to the earliest known usage in print, and provides authoritative quotations from throughout the history of literature displaying the evolution of the word throughout its usage. Unlike standard dictionaries, which primarily provide etymologies, pronunciations, and meanings, the OED places each word in its cultural and linguistic context, which explains why and how the word means what it means.

The compilation of the dictionary was conceived in 1857, and work continued for over 20 years before Oxford University agreed to publish the work, which would take another 50 years to be completed. The totality of events and obstacles during this 70-year period are too broad for me to go into detail here, but Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman does an admirable job of explaining the project, while providing a fascinating account of the lives of several of its key contributors. His follow-up work, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary is one I have not yet enjoyed, but is a more complete history of the OED project in general. It was released on the 75th anniversary of the dictionary’s first edition. The third edition is currently in the works.

That such massive amounts of time, money, and sheer physical and mental effort were expended in the interest of cataloging, codifying, and preserving the English language is, to me, extremely encouraging. It displays a pride in our intellectuality that was very apparent in the era in which the project began, a pride to which I believe we must cling fiercely, even as we continue to be tossed about on the vast seas of ‘the information age’.

Because of computers, today an incomprehensibly large volume of information is at our fingertips, but the vast majority of this bears no authority, has no basis in reality, or is relayed in such an informal or incoherent manner that it warrants little attention. The OED, and literary and historical works in general, must continue to be produced and studied, not only for the enjoyment which comes from investing in one’s own betterment, but for the preservation of our intellectual traditions, traditions that are today being threatened.

This is what reading books, and selling books, has always meant to me. And with that, I am off to fight the good fight.

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