I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
– Jorge Luis Borges.
What’s three-feet long, weighs as much as an adult man, and can tell you everything? No, it’s not an off-colour joke; apparently, it’s ‘the sum of human knowledge’ – or at least how it stood just over a century ago in the form of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Long before information was only a click away thanks to the internet, one’s only recourse was to pay a visit to a library, or, more conveniently, to consult an encyclopaedia. Deriving from an ancient Greek compound word – enkuklios paideia – meaning ‘an all-round education’, encyclopaedias have existed in one form or another since antiquity. But it was only with the publication of Denis Diderot’s twenty-eight-volume Encylopédie (1751-72), one of the flagship projects of the Enlightenment, that its modern format was born.
In response to its success, a group of booksellers and publishers in Edinburgh decided to create their own, English-language version, which they entitled the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and published in three volumes between 1768 and 1771. In subsequent editions during the following decades, the encyclopaedia grew to be twenty volumes long, and to represent a touchstone of popular learning. By the close of the nineteenth century, however, a combination of rival competitors and financial difficulties pulled the Encyclopaedia Britannica close to bankruptcy. Salvation only came in the form of its takeover by a consortium of American businessmen, who sought to overhaul the encyclopaedia and market it to middle-class households on either side of the Atlantic.
Now an Anglo-American collaboration, in 1903, the Encyclopaedia Britannica embarked upon the compilation of its most ambitious version ever. Published in twenty-eight volumes (plus an index) over 1910 and 1911, the eleventh edition presented over 40,000 separate entries across its 28,000 pages on subjects ranging from ‘Aaron’ to ‘zymotic diseases’. It was an instant bestseller, and became the first encyclopaedia ever to shift over a million copies. (For comparison, the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica sold only 3,000.) Much of the reason for its success can be attributed to its concise, yet comprehensive, approach to information. While the last full edition of the encyclopaedia contained around 17,000 articles, it was published in serial fashion over the space of fourteen years; the genius of the eleventh was that it managed to double its coverage of topics, while adding only four more volumes, and achieved complete publication in a matter of months.
While previous editions of the encyclopaedia had drawn articles from learned specialists, the eleventh edition collected together contributions from a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the most eminent men and women from the contemporary arts and sciences. For example, among its 1,500 contributors from a score of countries were such luminaries as Algernon Swinburne, Edmund Gosse, J.B. Bury, T.H. Huxley, Ernest Rutherford and Alfred North Whitehead. Importantly, it also included articles by some two hundred women, while Janet Hogarth held a key position on the editorial staff with responsibility for the publication’s pioneering index volume. Laid out in small, neat text across two columns per page of thin India paper, the encyclopaedia’s articles were copiously illustrated with black-and-white diagrams and photographs. In addition, these were supplemented by a set of numerous pull-out maps and colour plates that are as much objects of beauty as the morocco-leather volumes of the encyclopaedia itself.
The Anglo-American architects of the eleventh edition were three men, who could not have been more different: Hugh Chisholm, the encyclopaedia’s British, Oxford-educated chief editor, whose sophisticated intellect and worldly erudition shaped its spirit; Franklin Everett Hooper, a colourful American entrepreneur, who (with his business partner, William Montgomery Jackson) was responsible for the project’s structuring and finance; and Henry Haxton, an unorthodox American ad man who mounted its extraordinarily effective transatlantic marketing campaign. While each played a vital role in its success, however, the eleventh’s true father remains Chisholm, who forged, with the help of his staff of sixty-four sub-editors, what he termed an ‘organic unity’ out of the diverse articles provided by his numerous contributors. Indeed, this may be said to be the hallmark of this publication, since it was arguably the first fully-indexed, cross-referenced, up-to-date encyclopaedia ever conceived as a single whole, rather than as an alphabetical collection of disparate articles published in piecemeal form over a long period.
Buoyed by the cultural egotism that was born out of contemporary Anglo-Saxon and European hegemony, Haxton’s flamboyant marketing claimed the eleventh edition as a landmark publication that would place into the hands of its owner nothing less than ‘[t]he sum of human knowledge’:
[A]ll that mankind has thought, done or achieved, all of the past experience of humanity that has survived the trial of time and the ordeal of service and is preserved as the useful knowledge of today. Of the human race and its endowment, of persons, places, histories, languages, literature, arts, sciences, religions, philosophies, laws, industries, and of the things and ideas connected with these, all is included that is relevant and everything explained that is explainable. In brief, to borrow an illustration from the engineer, the contents of the Eleventh Edition of the [Encyclopaedia Britannica] constitute a cross section of the trunk of the tree of knowledge.
But in 1914, only three years after the encyclopaedia’s publication, the outbreak of the Great War would challenge and overturn forever the perceived certainties of such a project, altering irrevocably the notion that one book, or set of books, could ever encompass the full breadth and depth of knowledge.
Of course, the Encyclopaedia Britannica did not end with its eleventh edition, running through further editions and revisions over the rest of the twentieth century, up to its most recent one in 2010. (In 2012, it ceased the publication of a print edition, but it continues to exist online as an active digital resource.) But in these later incarnations, many older entries were jettisoned in favour of articles on contemporary, often technological and scientific, subjects, while the opinionated pieces that defined the eleventh edition were replaced with often more bland articles that sought to be as inoffensive as they were informative. Consequently, the eleventh edition represents something of a watershed in intellectual history, being arguably the last great monument raised to the self-assured, Enlightenment belief in reason and progress, and perhaps the first major modern development towards giving more people more access to more knowledge than ever before – the defining feature of our own Digital Age.
One wonders how many of the million copies sold were read, although it is true that a few hardy souls have made their way through the whole of the eleventh, such as the American businessman (and inventor of the capsule vitamin), Amos Urban Shirk, who allegedly managed it in four years. Although it seems a tedious endeavour, many of the articles in the eleventh are not only fascinating in themselves, but written in a pellucid and engaging, if at times quaint, prose. Numerous individuals have discovered this for themselves, including the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who, as a young man, would regularly visit the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires purely to read a few articles at random from the eleventh edition. One finds it hard to believe that some of Borges’ most important essays and stories, such as ‘The Total Library’ or ‘The Library of Babel’, owe nothing to this experience.
Nowadays, Wikipedia is undoubtedly the encyclopaedic resource most consulted globally, but it is a little-known fact that many of its original articles were based upon material drawn verbatim from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Since it had already entered the public domain by the former’s establishment in 2001, it recommended itself as an authoritative, accessible resource that would provide a framework upon which to build the website. While nine decades separate the two encyclopaedic projects, each was designed to extend knowledge in a fresh way to a mass audience. Interestingly, a 2005 study conducted by Nature compared articles on the same subjects in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia, and found that they possessed a broadly similar level of accuracy. Although Wikipedia remains as imperfect a resource (for different reasons) as its forebear, whatever advantages it possesses, it owes at least some of them to its original foundation on the core material of the eleventh edition.
While an astonishing achievement, the eleventh is by no means perfect; as a product of its time, it is politically incorrect, and even downright racist in some of its assumptions. More than anything, however, it is unwavering in the certainty of its assertions, which derived from the innate self-confidence of European culture at the time. Some might argue that such an unwieldy and obsolete object of imperialist self-assurance has little to offer today, apart from perhaps to academics or book collectors. Yet, in spite of its failings and weaknesses, it retains a magic and a romance, since humans have long dreamed of possessing the world’s knowledge in one place – from the Library of Alexandria to Google. This was a project that sought to do exactly that; so, although it fell short, one must admire the bravery, ambition and ingenuity of its architects and authors in attempting to achieve the impossible, and going a long way towards it.
Although a recent history of the eleventh’s publication has been published – Denis Boyles’ Everything explained that is explainable: on the creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s celebrated eleventh edition, 1910-11 (2016) –, it mostly deals with its commercial and financial aspects. For those who would prefer a taster of the real thing, I would direct them instead to Alexander Coleman and Charles Simmons’ edited compendium, All there is to know: readings from the illustrious eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1994). But, ultimately, I hope that some may be inspired to track down a stray volume or two, or even a whole set, if you can find one. Like anything from a pocket-watch to a dreadnought, the work embodies the sophisticated, neatly-engineered Edwardian era of its production: it is mechanical, measured, methodical and modern, as well as a relic of a time when certainty, confidence and progress still resolutely reigned.
In short, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica marks the point of transition between the horse-drawn, steam-driven, gas-lit world of the nineteenth century and the fast-moving, motorised, electrified one of the twentieth. Representing arguably an intellectual apotheosis of its age, it was a unique, collaborative effort between over 1,500 of the brightest people in the world at the time, who were invited to convey their learning to millions of others in an extraordinary collation of scholarship. It also captures a comprehensive picture of human knowledge at one vital juncture in history, when the last terra incognita on earth had been filled in on maps, and technology had reached unparalleled levels of finesse and utility. For those like myself who are devoted to facts, paradise will always be a library – and may, in its mortal form, much resemble the glorious eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.