Monday, April 08, 2013

Article Note: On Encyclopedias Growing and Shrinking, 1690 to 1840

Citation for the article:

Loveland, Jeff, "Why Encyclopedias Got Bigger...and Smaller." Information and Culture 47.2 (2012): 233-254.

Read via Project Muse.

This is a history of books and reading article. It discusses the growth and eventual shrinkage of encyclopedias during the period of 1690 to 1840. I found it interesting to learn about the encyclopedia endeavors and trade during the time period. Loveland goes over why the encyclopedias initially grew in size, then why they shrunk to a stable size. And as we all know, encyclopedias are now really shrinking with the advent of online collaboratives like Wikipedia.

Some notes from the article:

  • The author argues that size can limit the value of an encyclopedia in terms of what it can provide for knowledge and information. Do note that these reference books do not always serve the function they were designed to do. This is due to social and cultural issues. 
  • A small definition: "As conceived here, encyclopedias are general repositories of information designed for consultation and sometimes for study or browsing as well" (234). 
  • Initially, encyclopedias were marketed to individuals seeking knowledge and self-improvement. By the early 20th century, the marketing changed. It was now to families seeking to secure a good education for their children. This was the time when you bought an encyclopedia set for the home so your child could have access to good information. I think this pretty much went on until the advent of the Internet. Personally, I do remember having at least two encyclopedias in the home: a Spanish language encyclopedic dictionary and a world book type of encyclopedia in English. 
  • During the period described in the article, an argument that encyclopedias were good sources for knowledge was their size. They were smaller than a library. Competitors often criticized each other for any exclusions; our encyclopedia is certainly more comprehensive than those guys kind of thing. 
  • Capital and financing were always an issue. Authors and publishers found various ways to deal with it such as  offering subscriptions and getting sponsors. Pirate copies and replications in other languages were an issue. 1774 saw changes in copyright law in Great Britain, the idea that it could not be held in perpetuity (an idea which is apparently eroding all over the place. Just ask the fine folks of the Disney company among others). That was just one nation. International copyright laws were still lacking.
  • Coolest title of an encyclopedia that was never finished: the 1701-1706 Biblioteca Universale Sacro-Profana. Sounds like a cool reference work to include in some occult kind of novel or such.
  • Initially, the encyclopedias got bigger and bigger. "Despite claims that the public was clamoring for additions, much of the new material that made its way into encyclopedias seems to have been inserted with little thought to readers' needs. Above all, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century encyclopedias often grew lengthier than initially advertised, a fact that led to anger on the part of subscribers" (243). Much of this issue was due to the fact that some article writers just kept on writing, and the editors were just too weak or lazy to rein them in. 
  • As copyright tightened, it did limit some encyclopedia growth. Editors and publishers now had to pay if they wanted to reprint something from some other work into their own. Also, those financing encyclopedias began to demand accountability, so free ranging editors and writers could no longer just keep on writing and writing content. However, interesting they did manage to keep costs low in terms of paying the contributors and writers, often appealing to vanity and fame to get them to work for free. 
  • From the conclusion: "Among the most important causes for the growth of encyclopedias from 1690 through 1840 were competition (with or without the encouragement of limited copyright), publishers' intuitions about the market for encyclopedias, and idealism and cupidity among publishers and contributors" (249-250). In the end, costs, financial conservatism, and more commercialism served to shrink them down. 

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