Reference Guide: Encylopedias to the Cyclopaedia

"My object is to treat of all those things which the Greeks include in the Encyclopaedia, which, however, are either not generally known or are rendered dubious from our ingenious conceits. And there are other matters which many writers have given so much in detail that we quite loathe them. It is, indeed, no easy task to give novelty to what is old, and authority to what is new; brightness to what is become tarnished, and light to what is obscure; to render what is slighted acceptable, and what is doubtful worthy of our confidence; to give to all a natural manner, and to each its peculiar nature. It is sufficiently honorable and glorious to have been willing even to make the attempt, although it should prove unsuccessful." - Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 1

The encyclopedia is a surprisingly difficult genre to define. In the present day, we might think of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or Wikipedia: a type of reference work intended to provide a comprehensive and objective or neutral overview on a wide range of subjects. We might also think of specialized encyclopedias such as the Star Trek Encyclopedia or the Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry. But encyclopedias have a long history, and their meaning has evolved over time and place. Even the word "encyclopedia" (and variations thereof) as we use it today is fairly new: it is thought to be a misreading of the Greek words "enkyklios paideia," "the whole circle of knowledge." The first use of "encyclopedia" in the title of a work was Paul Skalich's Encyclopediae seu orbis disciplinarum tam sacrarum quam profanarum epistemon in 1559, although the term "cyclopedia" had been used earlier by Joachim Sterck van Ringelbergh in 1538.

Beyond the name itself, the format and content of encyclopedias has not always been stable. The inclusion of biographies is a relatively recent development, as is the index and alphabetical arrangement of entries. Nor are encyclopedias a uniquely Western form: early Chinese encyclopedias (leishu), for example, tended to be geared towards compiling information on literary works for use for civil service exams. Despite their apparent dryness, encyclopedias also have subversive power. Diderot's and D'Alembert's Encyclopedie (1751-1766) was censored by the pre-Revolutionary French government for its radical Enlightenment principles and challenge of religious authority.

This reference guide explores some of the major encyclopedias produced up to Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia (1728), which is considered the first modern encyclopedia. Unlike an encyclopedia, this reference guide does not attempt to be a comprehensive treatment of all encyclopedias. Rather, the intent is to provide general resources and highlights. Then again, even the best encyclopedia is by nature incomplete; there is always new information that can be added, and subjects that are inevitably omitted, accidentally or by design. Pliny's modesty feels appropriate here--although we may never achieve perfection, it is still worth trying.


Collinson, Robert L., and Warren E. Preece. "Encyclopaedia." Encyclopedia Britannica. September 8, 2016.

When researching encyclopedias, it makes sense to begin with an encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps the most well-known reference work today, provides an overview of the shifting meaning of "encyclopedia," descriptions of different types of encyclopedias, and a detailed historical background and significance.

Collison, Robert Lewis. Encyclopaedias: Their History throughout the Ages. 2d ed. New York: Hafner Pub. Co, 1966.

Collison's work has become a foundational text in the study of encyclopedias. In addition to a detailed bibliography of encyclopedias beginning from 350 BCE, Collison includes a chronology of encyclopedias and excerpts from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Encyclopedia Metropolitana.

Norman, Jeremy. "Knowledge Organization/Taxonomy/Encyclopedism Timeline." Accessed March 9, 2018.

Norman provides a detailed timeline of the history of knowledge organization, taxonomy, and encyclopedism, stretching all the way from 3200 BCE to the present.

Stockwell, Foster. A History of Information Storage and Retrieval. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2008.

Although this text is not as comprehensive as Collison's work, Stockwell presents a very readable history of encyclopedias within their cultural context.

1. Pliny the Elder: Naturalis Historia (77 CE)

While it can't be claimed as the "first encyclopedia," the Naturalis Historia (Natural History) by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was certainly the most influential surviving reference work from antiquity. The massive 37-volume work on the natural world became the accepted authority in Medieval Europe on subjects ranging from botany, zoology, geography, anthropology, medicine, astronomy, and more. Although Pliny was later heavily criticized for his inaccuracies and reliance on hearsay, his writings were widely disseminated and studied.

Doody, Aude. Pliny's Encyclopedia: The Reception of the Natural History. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Doody traces the history of the reception of Naturalis Historia, and how labeling the work as an "encyclopedia" affects the way we read and understand it.

The full English text of Naturalis Historia can be accessed through the Perseus Catalog. This is the 1855 translation by John Bostock and H. T. Riley.

The British Library has a full digitized manuscript of Naturalis Historia: Harley MS 2676. This manuscript dates to 1465-1467, from Florence, and was made by Hubertus for the Medici family.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Pliny the Elder, Natural History in ms. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82.4, fol. 3r.)

2. Cassiodorus: Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum (562)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, knowledge production and transmission in Europe shifted towards monasteries. Although Cassiodorus's encyclopedia was not the most popular of medieval encyclopedias, it represented an important shift towards Christian subject matter that was repeated by later medieval encyclopedists such as Isidore of Seville. The work was organized into two volumes: the "divine" and the "secular," with the divine covering topics such as the Holy Scriptures and historians of Christianity, while the secular focused on topics such as grammar and arithmetic.

O'Donnell, James J. Cassiodorus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Classical scholar James O'Donnell provides an in-depth biography of Cassiodorus and his work. Full text available online.

Norman, Jeremy. "The Scriptorium and Library at the Vivarium (circa 560)." Accessed March 9, 2018.

Cassiodorus set up his monastery, school, and scriptorium (the Vivarium) at Squillace in Italy after his retirement from public service. He was particularly concerned with the preservation of Greek texts. This article describes the organization of the scriptorium and some of the contents of his library.

A digitized manuscript of Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum is available through Staatsbibliothek Bamberg (Bamberg State Library).

3. Ibn Sina (Avicenna): Kitab al-Shifa (1027)

While many texts from antiquity were lost in medieval Europe, they were preserved in the Arabic world. Scientific knowledge and the humanities flourished in the Golden Age of Islam under the caliphates from the eighth to thirteenth centuries. Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, as he was called in the West, became especially well-known for his contributions to medicine, but despite the English translation of the name "Kitab al-shifa" to "Book of Healing," this encyclopedia deals with logic, natural sciences, mathematics, and metaphysics.

Rizvi, Sajjad H. "Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (c. 980--1037)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed March 9, 2018.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a biography of Ibn Sina, a detailed overview of his philosophical views and legacy, and many additional references.

Al-Rawi, Munim. "Contribution of Ibn Sina to the development of Earth Sciences." Accessed March 9, 2018.

Avicenna included geology in the natural sciences portion of the Kitab al-Shifa. He identified mud, water, and fire as the sources of stone, and described the formation of strata over long periods of time.

Boston College Library has digitized a 1508 copy of a Latin translation of the Kitab al-Shifa (Sufficientia).

A partial English translation of the Kitab al-Shifa was made by the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative at Brigham Young University. The translation covers the portion of the text on physical motion. The English translation is presented in parallel with the original Arabic.

4. Yongle Dadian (1408)

The Yongle Dadian was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor after he came to power in 1402. It was the largest Chinese encyclopedia of its time, and consisted of 11,095 volumes on Confucian philosophy, art, and science. Unfortunately, because it was never intended for public consumption, only a small number of copies were ever made, and most of the work was lost due to fires and centuries of political and colonial upheaval. The National Library of China holds just 221 volumes today.

Chiesura, Sara. "Three volumes of the Yongle Dadian now on display at the British Museum." British Library African and Asian Studies (blog). October 10, 2014.

The British Museum presents a biography of the Yongle Emperor, a summary of the contents, format, and history of the Yongle Dadian, and digitized images from a copy owned by the British Library depicting everything from soybean recipes to funeral rites (see image).

"Yongle Encyclopedia." New World Encyclopedia. Accessed March 4, 2018.

The New World Encyclopedia entry includes detailed information about the creation of the Yongle Dadian and its subsequent fate.

(Image courtesy of the British Library: Chapter 7389 (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) of the Yongle Dadian, concerned mainly with funeral rites (British Library Or.11758, f.1r))

5. Francis Bacon: Sylva sylvarum (1626)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is best known for his contributions to modern science and championing empiricism and the scientific method. His ambitious plan for a 130-part encyclopedia to be called The Great Instauration was never fully realized. Only two segments of the work were published before he died in disgrace in 1626; Sylva sylvarum, a compilation of texts that Bacon had intended to use for The Great Instauration, was published posthumously by Bacon's secretary William Rawley. Bacon was heavily influenced by Pliny's Naturalis Historia, and Bacon's work in turn went on to influence Diderot's Encyclopedie.

Peltonen, Markku, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The Cambridge Companion to Bacon contains essays on Bacon's contributions to philosophy, writings on science, and his considerable legacy.

Alvarez, Pablo. "Collection Highlight: Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum..." University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. Accessed March 4, 2018.

Alvarez provides background on Rawley's role in the making of the Sylva Sylvarum, including quotes from the work and context for some of the images from a 1627 copy owned by the University of Rochester.

Duke University Libraries has a fully digitized 1670 edition of Sylva Sylvarum available online.

6. Ephraim Chambers: Cyclopaedia (1728)

Chambers' two-volume work--a "universal dictionary of arts and sciences"--used a complex system of cross-references and a systematic arrangement. It was influential in the development of later, better known works such as the Encyclopedie and Ree's Cyclopaedia (1802-1819). Collison considers Chambers' Cyclopaedia the first modern encyclopedia.

Kafker, Frank A. "The Encyclopedie in relation to the nine predecessors." In Lexicography: Critical Concepts: Volume 2, Reference Works Across Time, Space, and Languages, edited by R. R. K. Hartmann, 39-51. London; New York: Routledge, 2003.

Chambers' Cyclopaedia is often overshadowed by Diderot's and D'Alembert's Encyclopedie. Kafker compares the Encyclopedie, Chambers' Cyclopaedia, and eight other encyclopedias, noting that Diderot and D'Alembert drew on some of Chambers' organizational concepts in addition to copying the language of certain entries.

Lawrence Miller's is entirely dedicated to Chambers' Cyclopaedia, and includes high resolution images and notes on the frontispieces and plates from multiple editions.

The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago has a fully searchable online version of the Cyclopaedia, which uses character recognition for a digitized copy held by University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

(Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections: "Microscopical objects and discoveries,"A supplement to Mr. Chambers's cyclopaedia: or, universal dictionary of arts and sciences. In two volumes [1753])