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encyclopedia, compendium of knowledge, either general (attempting to cover all fields) or specialized (aiming to be comprehensive in a particular field).

Encyclopedias and Other Reference Books

Basically an encyclopedia differs from a dictionary in that a dictionary is fundamentally devoted to words and an encyclopedia offers information on various subjects, with data on and discussion of each subject identified. An almanac differs from an encyclopedia in that an almanac normally is issued periodically and includes ephemeral data applicable at the time of issue, while an encyclopedia is assembled from accumulated knowledge within a broader scope. An atlas is devoted to maps and charts.

Early Encyclopedias

Attempts at encompassing universal knowledge began with the brilliantly comprehensive works of Aristotle. Other classical writers tried to follow his example, and the Natural History of Pliny the Elder is sometimes called the first encyclopedia. Alexandrian scholars did some work of an encyclopedic nature in compiling their lengthy anthologies and summations of knowledge. The Asian encyclopedias, particularly the voluminous Chinese collections, were actually more in the nature of anthologies than reference works. In the Middle Ages various scholars drew up compendiums of knowledge; notable were the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, a curious mixture of fact and legend, and 13th-century works by Vincent of Beauvais, Roger Bacon, and Brunetto Latini.

Modern Encyclopedias

The modern type of encyclopedia—with alphabetical arrangement and frequently with bibliographies—is usually said to have been established by John Harris in his Lexicon technicum (1704). Perhaps the most renowned of all encyclopedias, the Encyclopédie, was completed in 1772 by Diderot and others in France. The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in three volumes (1768–71). It grew in size (to 32 volumes) and reputation over the years; despite its name, the encyclopedia has long been edited and published in the United States. In 2012 it announced that its 2010 printing of the 15th edition would be its last print edition.

The oldest German encyclopedia still being published is Brockhaus' Konversations-Lexikon, first issued from 1796 to 1808. On this, rather than on Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1st ed. 1728), was based the British Chambers's Encyclopedia (1st ed. 1859–68). The famous Larousse Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXème siècle français in 17 volumes was published from 1865 to 1888. The 30-volume Saudi Global Arabic Encyclopedia, the first modern encyclopedia in Arabic and with an Arab perspective, was published in 1997.

The first noteworthy American encyclopedia was The Encyclopedia Americana, edited by Francis Lieber (13 vol., 1829–33). Important American encyclopedias include Collier's Encyclopedia (24 vol., 1949–51) and Encyclopedia International (20 vol., 1963). Notable multivolume juvenile encyclopedias are The Book of Knowledge (1910), World Book Encyclopedia (1917), Britannica Junior (1934), Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia (1922), and Merit Students Encyclopedia (1967).

Since the advent of computer technology, encyclopedias have been made available in CD-ROM format (see compact disc), sometimes as part of a reference package; and as part of an on-line service. CD-ROM encyclopedias, which have been largely been superseded by on-line ones, offered multimedia enhancements, such as video and sound clips and animated illustrations; on-line encyclopedias especially are easily and frequently updated. All electronic encyclopedias make use of hypertext cross-references. Another product of the computer age is the Wikipedia, an Internet-based on-line encyclopedia (est. 2001) sponsored by a nonprofit corporation and written and edited collaboratively by volunteers (anyone may submit articles, additions, or corrections).

Some specialized encyclopedias are in many volumes, such as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Encyclopedia of Islam, and the New Grove Dictionary of Music. Most specialized encyclopedias, however, are one volume or two. The one-volume general encyclopedia became popular in Europe early in the 20th cent., but the first comprehensive one-volume general encyclopedia in English was The Columbia Encyclopedia (1935), now in its sixth edition. A number of compact desk encyclopedias are also now available.


See E. P. Sheehy, Guide to Reference Books (annual supplement); R. L. Collison, Encyclopaedias: Their History throughout the Ages (2d ed. 1966); K. F. Kister, Kister's Best Encyclopedias (2d ed. 1994).


Encyclopédie (äNsēklôpādēˈ), the work of the French Encyclopedists, or philosophes. The full title was Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers. This work was originally planned as a translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopedia (1st ed. 1728), and the first editor was the Abbé Gua de Malves. The project was abandoned because of disagreements, and Le Breton, the publisher, agreed to let Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert edit an entirely new work. With the aid of Quesnay, Montesquieu, Voltaire, J. J. Rousseau, Turgot, and others, the two editors produced the first volume in 1751, with a famous “preliminary discourse” signed by Alembert. The discourse indicated the aims of the project and then presented definitions and histories of science and the arts. The rational, secular emphasis of the whole volume infuriated the Jesuits, who attacked the work as irreligious and used their influence to convince the government to withdraw (1759) the official permit. Alembert resigned as editor. The project was able to continue, however, as a result of Diderot's perseverance and the support he received from the statesman Malesherbes. With the help of the chevalier de Jaucourt, Diderot brought the clandestine printing of the work to completion in 1772. Of the 28 volumes, 11 were devoted to plates illustrating the industrial arts; Diderot compiled this information and made the drawings. When the work was in page proof, Diderot discovered that deletions made by the printer had mutilated many articles containing liberal opinions. Despite this unofficial censorship the Encyclopédie championed the skepticism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. By 1780 a five-volume supplement and a two-volume index were added, compiled under other editors. The success of the Encyclopédie was immediate, and its influence was incalculable. Through its stress on scientific determinism and its attacks on legal, juridical, and clerical abuses, the Encyclopédie was a major factor in the intellectual preparation for the French Revolution.


See selections ed. by N. S. Hoyt and T. Cassirer (tr. 1965); R. N. Schwab et al., Inventory of Diderot's Encyclopédie (1971); J. Lough, The Encyclopédie (1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a scientific or popular science reference work containing the most essential information in all fields of knowledge or practical activity (in the case of general, or world, encyclopedias) or in a particular field (specialized encyclopedias). In concentrated form, encyclopedias present certain viewpoints with respect to nature and society. In addition to reflecting the level of science and culture of a given age, an encyclopedia carries a definite ideological charge, which expresses the interests of the class on whose behalf the work is published and to which its authors belong.

According to their structure, encyclopedias may be alphabetic (the material being arranged in alphabetic order) or systematic; depending on their size, they are conventionally classified as large (more than a dozen volumes), small (ten to 12 volumes), concise (four to six volumes), and one-, two-, or three-volume encyclopedias, which are usually called encyclopedic dictionaries. In every encyclopedia the subject matter is arranged according to a specific plan (that is, the entire content is subdivided into the various disciplines and types of articles) and according to a preliminary article list (which gives the titles of all the articles).

Encyclopedias may contain different types of articles—namely, survey articles, informational articles, definitions (articles that only define a term and, in cases of foreign derivation, give the term’s etymology), and cross-references (which refer the reader to other articles). The first two types, which differ chiefly in length, are distinctive of encyclopedias; they contain the basic and essential information on a given subject, such as the explanation of a scientific theory, the history of an event, and geographic, biographical, and statistical data.

For the reader who wishes to obtain more thorough and detailed information, references are cited in the text, at the end of an article, at the end of each volume, or in a special bibliographic volume. Encyclopedias include such important illustrative material as maps, diagrams, charts, drawings, reproductions of paintings, photographs, portraits, facsimiles, and pictures of coins and flags. Multivolume encyclopedias usually have auxiliary indexes.

The course of development of the general encyclopedias took shape in the mid-20th century. In connection with the scientific and technological revolution, considerable attention is given to the new branches of science and technology. The number of articles increases, and their length is reduced correspondingly. Various methods of updating, other than revised editions, are used (for example, continuous revision—that is, the systematic reprinting of successive sections with partial changes or additions; “encyclopedia magazines,” which are continuations of a particular encyclopedia; and “yearbooks,” which supplement the original edition with new information for each year). Increasingly greater importance is attached to the extent and quality of bibliographic material. Encyclopedias are being designed for a broader range of readers and are becoming more generally accessible. Cumbersome volumes are being supplanted by volumes of comparatively small format, printed on thin paper and in special easy-to-read type. Inexpensive (“paperback”) editions of encyclopedias and minieditions are growing.

The encyclopedia as we know it is of recent origin, but encyclopedic works date back to ancient times in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and to the Middle Ages in Europe, in the countries using Arabic writing, and in China. In the world of antiquity the term “encyclopedia” referred to the sum of elementary general knowledge comprising the seven liberal arts and was not applied to a particular type of literary work. The term was first used in the title of an encyclopedic work in 1620—in J. H. Alsted’s Cursus philosophiae encyclopaedia (Herborn).

The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers, published in France in 1751–80 under the editorship of D. Diderot and J. D’Alembert, came to symbolize the French Enlightenment and marked the beginning of growth and expansion in the publication of encyclopedias.

Dictionaries of “unclear words” appeared in Rus’ in the 13th century. Beginning in the 16th century, such dictionaries were arranged alphabetically and were called azbukovniki. In 1627 the Ukrainian lexicographer P. Berynda published the first dictionary, the Leksikon slavenorosskii (Slavo-Russian Lexicon). Various geographic, historical, and other specialized dictionaries, called “real” dictionaries, appeared in the 18th century. In the 1730’s, V. N. Tatishchev compiled the Leksikon Rossiiskoi istoricheskoi, geograficheskoi, politicheskoi i grazhdanskoi (Russian Historical, Geographic, Political, and Civil Lexicon), published in 1793.

In 1823–25 the publisher S. A. Selivanovskii began publishing the Entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ (Encyclopedic Dictionary), which was to consist of 40 to 45 volumes; V. K. Kiichelbecker and V. I. Shteingel’ were among the contributors. After the suppression of the Decembrist uprising, the three volumes of the dictionary that were in print were destroyed. In 1835 the book publisher A. A. Pliushar undertook publication of the Entsiklopedicheskii Leksikon (Encyclopedic Lexicon), which came to an end with the 17th volume, published in 1841. Noteworthy among the various Russian encyclopedias of the 19th century was the Nastol’nyi slovar’ dlia spravok po vsem otrasliam znanii (Desk-size Reference Dictionary of All Branches of Knowledge, vols. 1–3, 1863–64), edited by F. G. Toll’, a member of the Petrashevskii circle; the dictionary’s Neobkhodimoe dopolnitel’noeprilozhenie (Indispensable Supplementary Appendix) was published in 1866–67, followed by Dopolnenie k Nastol’nomu slovariu F. Tollia (Supplement to the Desk-size Dictionary of F. Toll’) in 1875–77.

By the early 20th century, those involved in the publication of encyclopedias were able to draw on the experience obtained in the compilation of 19th-century encyclopedias in Russia and abroad. The 20th-century encyclopedias are highly informative; they endeavor to cover each subject thoroughly and to provide accurate bibliographic information. The Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in St. Petersburg between 1890 and 1907, consisted of 82 half-volumes and four supplementary half-volumes. Most of its articles, which covered all branches of knowledge, were compiled by prominent Russian scholars and scientists. The dictionary was an excellent reference work.

The Granat Encyclopedic Dictionary (published by the brothers A. and I. Granat) is one of the outstanding general-purpose Russian encyclopedias. Among the smaller general encyclopedic dictionaries that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were M. M. Filippov’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (or Scientific-Encyclopedic Dictionary, vols. 1–3, 1898–1901), which was the first Russian encyclopedia to carry an article on V. I. Lenin (published in 1900 under the heading “Il’in, Vladimir”); F. F. Pavlenkov’s one-volume Encyclopedic Dictionary (1899; 5th ed., 1913); and the Brockhaus-Efron Small Encyclopedic Dictionary (vols. 1–3, 1899–1902; 2nd ed., vols. 1–2, 1907–09). In addition to the general encyclopedias, several specialized ones appeared in such fields as technology, agriculture, and military science.

During the Revolution of 1905–07 and in the following years, much effort was devoted to the publication of reference works whose contributors included V. I. Lenin and many other Bolsheviks—for example, the Kratkii narodnyi slovar’ (Concise Popular Dictionary, Vpered Publishing House, 1906), the Kalendar dlia vsekh na 1908 god (Everybody’s Calendar for 1908, published by Zerno, 1907), and Sputnik rabochego na 1914 god (Workingman’s Companion for 1914, by Priboi, 1913).

USSR. After the victory of the October Revolution of 1917, preparatory work was begun on encyclopedias based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. In the very first years of Soviet power, V. I. Lenin raised the question of the need for Soviet dictionaries and encyclopedias, and specifically for a concise dictionary of definitions that would be encyclopedic at the same time. The planning stages of these projects lasted until the mid-1920’s. A few specialized encyclopedias were published, such as the Krest’ianskaia sel’skokhoziaistvennaia entsiklopediia (The Peasant’s Agricultural Encyclopedia, vols. 1–7, 1925–28), Torgovaia entsiklopediia (Trade Encyclopedia, vols. 1–5, 1924–25), and Pedagogicheskaia entsiklopediia (Pedagogical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–3, 1927–29).

A new stage in encyclopedia publishing was marked by the Bol’shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia (Great Soviet Encyclopedia, GSE), which began publication in conformity with the decree of Feb. 13, 1925, of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. The first edition of the GSE (1926–47) was in 66 volumes, the second (1950–58) in 51 volumes, and the third (1969–78) in 31 volumes. The Ezhegodnik BSE (GSE Yearbook) has been published since 1957. There have been three editions of the Malaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia (Lesser Soviet Encyclopedia, vols. 1–10, 1928–31; 2nd ed., vols. 1–11, 1933–47; and 3rd ed., vols. 1–10, 1958–60) and three editions of the Entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ (Encyclopedic Dictionary, vols. 1–3, 1953–55; vols. 1–2, 1963–64; and a one-volume edition, 1979). In addition, various specialized encyclopedias have been published, as well as encyclopedic dictionaries and reference books—for example, on different countries and regions.

Among the major specialized encyclopedias of the 1930’s were the Tekhnicheskaia entsiklopediia (Technical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–26, 1927–36), Bol’shaia meditsinskaia entsiklopediia (Great Encyclopedia of Medicine, vols. 1–35, 1928–36), and Literaturnaia entsiklopediia (Encyclopedia of Literature, vols. 1–10, 1929–39; incomplete). Since the mid-1940’s, various Soviet publishing houses have issued encyclopedic works on machine building, mining, and military medicine, as well as dictionaries on such specialized subjects as politics, philosophy, diplomacy, pedagogy, and law.

In the Soviet Union, the Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia Publishing House is the leader in its field. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s it undertook the simultaneous publication of more than 20 specialized encyclopedias, which reflected the differentiation of the sciences and marked a new stage in the growth of encyclopedia publishing in the USSR. Complete editions of the following specialized encyclopedias had been published by the mid-1970’s.

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vols. 1–5, 1960–70

Soviet Historical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–16, 1961–76

Industry and Construction (an economic encyclopedia), vols. 1–3, 1962–65

Pedagogical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–4, 1964–68

Encyclopedic Dictionary of Physics, vols. 1–5, 1960–66

Concise Chemical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–5, 1961–67

Concise Geographical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–5, 1960–66

Agricultural Encyclopedia, vols. 1–6, 1969–75

Veterinary Encyclopedia, vols. 1–6, 1968–76

Great Medical Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vols. 1–36, 1956–64; 3rd ed., vols. 1–30, 1974—

Lesser Medical Encyclopedia, vols. 1–12, 1965–70

Encyclopedia of the Theater, vols. 1–5, 1961–67

The Great October Socialist Revolution, 1977

Works in process of publication include the Concise Encyclopedia of Literature (vols. 1–9, 1962–78), the encyclopedia Art of the World’s Peoples and Countries (vols. 1–4, 1962–78), and the Encyclopedia of Music (vols. 1–4, 1973–78). The Soviet Military Encyclopedia is being published by Voenizdat (Military Publishing House).

Beginning in the late 1950’s, plans were formulated for the publication of various encyclopedias in the national languages of the Union republics. These publications may be divided into general and regional encyclopedias, the latter being devoted to a single republic. (Earlier attempts to produce regional encyclopedias date back to the 1930’s.) The first Soviet republic encyclopedia was the Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopedia (vols. 1–17, 1959–65). Since 1977, the second, 12-volume edition has been undertaken (by 1981, 4 vols. had been published); in 1978 publication in Russian of the Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopedia was begun (12 vols.; by 1981, 2 vols. had been published). The following encyclopedic works were also published in the Ukraine.

Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopedic Dictionary, vols. 1–3, 1966–68

Soviet Encyclopedia of Ukrainian History, vols. 1–4, 1969–72

History of the Cities and Villages of the Ukraine, vols. 1–26, 1967–73; State Prize of the USSR, 1976

History of Ukrainian Art, vols. 1–7, 1966–68

Ukrainian Agricultural Encyclopedia, vols. 1–3, 1970–72

Cybernetics, 1973

Other completed encyclopedic editions are the Byelorussian Soviet Encyclopedia (vols. 1–12, 1969–75), the Lesser Encyclopedia of the Latvian SSR (regional, vols. 1–3, 1967–72), the Lesser Lithuanian Soviet Encyclopedia (regional, vols. 1–2, 1966–75), the Estonian Soviet Encyclopedia (vols. 1–8, 1968–76), the Kazakh Soviet Encyclopedia (vols. 1–12, 1968–78), and the Uzbek Soviet Encyclopedia (vols. 1–14, 1971–80).

As of Jan. 1, 1981, the following encyclopedias were in preparation or in process of publication in the Union republics.

Azerbaijan Soviet Encyclopedia, 10 vols. (2 vols. published)

Armenian Soviet Encyclopedia, 10 vols. (4 vols. published)

Georgian Soviet Encyclopedia, 10 vols. (4 vols. published)

Kirghiz Soviet Encyclopedia, 6 vols. (5 vols. published)

Moldavian Soviet Encyclopedia, 8 vols. (7 vols. published)

Tadzhik Soviet Encyclopedia, 6 vols. (2 vols. published)

Turkmen Soviet Encyclopedia, 10 vols. (3 vols. published)

Lithuanian Soviet Encyclopedia (a general encyclopedia), 12 vols. (6 vols. published)

The Children’s Encyclopedia (vols. 1–10, 1958–62; 2nd ed., vols. 1–12, 1964–69; and 3rd ed., vols. 1–12, 1971–78) was an important event in Soviet encyclopedia publishing.

Other socialist countries. Much effort is devoted to the publication of general encyclopedias in the other socialist countries. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has published the Kratka bulgarska entsiklopediia (Concise Bulgarian Encyclopedia, vols. 1–5, Sofia, 1963–69). The Hungarian Academy of Sciences published the Uj magyar lexikon (New Hungarian Encyclopedia, vols. 1–7, Budapest, 1959–72). In the German Democratic Republic, the Bibliographic Institute is issuing the second edition of Meyer’s New Dictionary. In Poland, the State Scientific Publishing House published the Wielka encyklopedia powszechna (Great Universal Encyclopedia, vols. 1–13, Warsaw, 1962–70) and is preparing its second edition. The Academy of the Socialist Republic of Rumania published the Dicţionar enciclopedic romîn (Rumanian Encyclopedic Dictionary, vols. 1–4, Bucharest, 1962–66), and the Rumanian Scientific Encyclopedia Publishing House, founded in 1968, is preparing the five-volume Enciclopedia României (Encyclopedia of Rumania) and the ten-volume Marea enciclopedia românā (Great Rumanian Encyclopedia). The Encyclopedia Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences published the Přiruční slovník naučný (Handy Scientific Dictionary, vols. 1–4, Prague, 1962–67) and is planning to publish a six-volume encyclopedia in Slovakia. The Lexicographic Institute of Yugoslavia published the Enciklopedija Leksikografskog zavoda (Encyclopedia of the Lexicographic Institute, vols. 1–7, Zagreb, 1955–64) and the Enciklopedija Jugoslavije (Encyclopedia of Yugoslavia, vols. 1–8, Zagreb, 1955–71).

Capitalist countries. The oldest of the great universal encyclopedias still being published in the capitalist countries is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Its 15th edition, published in 1975, is fundamentally different in structure; it is divided into three parts— Micropaedia, Macropaedia, and Propaedia. The Micro-paedia (vols. 1–10) contains short articles for quick reference, with cross-references to the Macropaedia (vols. 1–19); the latter consists of comprehensive articles (selected from those in the Micropaedia), which explore each subject in greater depth and are accompanied by bibliographies. The one-volume Propaedia serves to guide the reader by showing the overall range of human knowledge and outlining each of its branches in systematic order and from the general to the particular. By virtue of its many cross-reference to the Macropaedia, the Propaedia serves as an auxiliary index.

Other well-known contemporary Western encyclopedias include the Spanish Espasa, or Enciclopedia universal ilustrada Europeo-Americana (Universal Illustrated European-American Encyclopedia), the Italian Encyclopedia of Sciences, Literature, and Art, the Brockhaus Encyclopedia published in the Federal Republic of Germany, the numerous French encyclopedias published by Larousse, and the Encyclopedia Americana.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The encyclopaedias can be accessed online at the SJC's website, www.sjc.gov.qa
RAMY SALAMA DOHA THE Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) formally announced on Tuesday the launching of their collection of online legislative encyclopaedia.
FOR 244 years it has been the world's most famous reference guide but the Encyclopaedia Britannica has finally succumbed to the digital revolution.
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To cater for this deficiency, Sheikh Niaz Ahmad of Sheikh Ghulam Ali & Sons, one of the oldest printers and publishers, has published Urdu Jaamia Encyclopaedia, the third volume of which shall be reviewed here.
So naturally the Welsh Academy appointed the bard of Mumbles, Nigel Jenkins, to edit the English-language edition of the new Encyclopaedia of Wales.
Borges's imagination was singularly taken by the design of the encyclopedia, as evidenced above all in the great 1940 story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" -which begins with the discovery of an article that has been added to one copy (or perhaps a few copies) of a plagiarized 1917 version of the tenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "una reimpresion literal, pero tambien morosa, de la Encyclopaedia Britannica de 1902" (431).
This remarkable achievement of the Ukrainian emigre scholarship embarrassed Soviet Ukraine into publishing its own much belated first encyclopaedia, Ukrains'ka radians'ka entsyklopediia.
"The Encyclopaedia Britannica is a general English-language encyclopaedia published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., a privately-held company.