The magic of the
Britannica 11

britannica.jpg (14087 bytes)

Note: an earlier version of this article appeared in the November, 2002 issue of The Standard, the online magazine of the International Online Booksellers Association.



You can Google just about anything these days and find a quick answer to even the most arcane queries, or at least it often seems as if you can. Why bother to own reference books at all in the 21st century? They just take up shelf space, attract dust, and the heavy ones are fully capable of re-arranging your toe bones if they slip from your grasp. Will the bookseller of the future sit at a sleek chrome desk, his white-walled office devoid of everything except his laptop and perhaps a poster advertising the 15th volume in the Harry Potter series?

Maybe. But maybe not… There’s a lot of information on the web, but there’s also a lot that is not there, at least not yet. I still end up on the dreaded “No Documents Found (are you sure you spelled it right?)” screen on a regular basis when working on Google and its brother search engines. Or perhaps there are three returns on the entire web, and they are all in Swedish, and (its fans notwithstanding) web translations are still pretty much a hit-and-miss venture. Even if I do find a lot of information there is always the problem of judging its accuracy -who wrote that web page, anyway, and did they have any idea what they were talking about? So, the fact is that many print-and-paper reference works retain their usefulness, and I am not going to be jettisoning the reference library just yet.

Among all my reference books, there is one standout, a star, a work that retains its dusty luster and a fierce band of loyal adherents almost a century after it was published. This book is the so-called "Britannica 11", or the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1910 and 1911.


The Encyclopedia Britannica was first published in three volumes between 1768 and 1771, at about the same time as Diderot's famous "Encyclopedie" in France. The Britannica was published in Edinburgh, Scotland, by a "Society of Gentlemen" consisting of editor William Smellie, who wrote all the articles, printer Colin Macfarquhar, and an engraver named Andrew Bell. It sold out quickly and a second edition, in ten volumes, was published between 1777 and 1784. A third edition was offered in 1797, and this was the first edition to include the work of outside authors.

But while the 18th century saw the birth of the modern encyclopedia, the 19th century saw the descent of the form into an academic exercise in navel-gazing. New editions of the Britannica were very scholarly and learned but none were particularly readable or even useful to a general audience, as they featured tediously long and ponderously dense entries. To add to the problem of usefulness (or lack thereof), each new edition was published in serial format, volumes being released as they were completed, a process that usually took from 3 to 8 years. One might almost read about archaeopteryx as a living bird in the first volume of an edition and read about the new zeppelins in the last volume...


With the publication of the 11th edition that was all changed. The editors knew that they needed an entirely new book, not simply a revision of what had come before. It was essential that it all be up-to-date, and that it be readable. The type for the 11th edition was kept in proof, subject to revision, until all the volumes were ready. The first fourteen volumes were released in the fall of 1910, and the last fourteen, along with the Index volume, were released in the early spring of 1911. There would be no more 7-year waits to find out the latest news in Zoology.

For the new edition the editors recruited a wide range of academics, writers, scientists and other experts in their fields, and the editors emphasized that the entries had to be well-written in addition to being informative. Many of the entries are signed with the initials of the author, and a complete index of authors, and the entries they wrote, was included in the index in Volume 29.


In 1910 the world was at a crossroads, and that is fully recognizable in the 11th edition, whose coverage of history, technology and science was unique and has never been repeated. The 11th edition was published at a time when it could encompass the great advances that had taken place in the 19th century, but before the even greater upheavals that would take place with the start of the First World War just a few years later. In 1910 the world was in the midst of great changes, but change was still seen as a wholly positive thing. Technology and progress were lauded, and knowledge was a tool for the betterment of Mankind. The Edwardian world that spawned the 11th edition would be shaken by the sinking of the Titanic a year later, and completely obliterated by the First World War. Then would come the Great Depression, Second World War, nuclear arms race, and many other events of the 20th century which would forever change the way we view progress and technology. Some later editions would do just as good a job of reflecting the world in which they were published, but it would be a radically changed world.

In short, the editors of the 11th edition were able to create an encyclopedia which reflected the "modern" world while retaining many references to the "old" one. As the publisher's own publicity put it, the 11th edition contained-

"The sum of human knowledge - all 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 EB constitute a cross section of the trunk of the tree of knowledge".

Even taking into account the possibility that the publishers may have overstated their case, the result was impressive. Entries on the history, scientists, theologians, politicians and other important figures from the Middle Ages through the 18th century abound, and it is these entries which make the 11th edition so valuable to booksellers. With later editions (specifically the 14th and on) many of these entries would be jettisoned to make space for 20th century subject matter. In addition, the 11th edition was really the last edition that was “edgy”. Many entries reflect a candor and willingness to be honest, or at least opinionated, which would vanish in later editions as the editors decided that one of their primary goals was not to offend anyone.


That would all change with the 14th edition. The 12th and 13th editions of the Britannica were basically updates of the 11th, with supplementary volumes. It was with the release of the 14th edition in 1929 that the Britannica was radically altered and the scholarly fur began to fly.

The 14th edition was designed not to offend anyone, or at least anyone in the English-speaking portion of the world. In the 11th edition many theologians had been asked to write entries regarding religious history and religious figures, but the entries had not been prepared, or approved, by the hierarchy of the mainstream churches. For the 14th edition these were rewritten with the direct purpose of making the churches involved happy; one theologian noted proudly that they had excised any event or fact that might even possibly be “offensive” to his church from the historical entries. The result was that everyone involved felt better, but historical accuracy suffered dreadfully. Regrettable incidents in religious history, especially ancient and Medieval history, were glossed over or eliminated, and important figures were not always be presented in a strictly accurate manner. The changes went beyond religion. Women, whose contributions to history, the arts and literature had been allowed to burst through into the pages of the 11th edition were put back into their kitchens, and there were also political considerations brought to bear, as the Germans and other Central Power countries saw the tone or even substance of some of their related entries altered in the bitter aftermath of World War One.

Reaction to the change was not positive, to put it mildly. Scholars and academics were appalled, and sales tanked. The 11th edition had been a bestseller, the 14th edition (probably also hurt by the onset of the Depression) was a great disappointment. Britannica's editors would drop the "please everyone" tone for the 15th edition, but by that time there was so much new 20th century material to include that much of the earlier, more esoteric material, which is of so much interest to booksellers researching semi-obscure 16th century scientists or 17th century theologians, had to be discarded.


Thus, the 11th edition, along with the related 12th and 13th editions, remains as an encyclopedia which is still useful almost a hundred years later. The text has passed out of copyright, and web-based and cd-rom editions are readily available. For those who simply have to have the paper edition, the larger, full-size set is recommended, although it will take up (your author pauses and gets out his ruler)... almost 3 feet of shelf space. And, with 30,000 pages holding 40,000 entries containing 4 millions words, it is a heavy set, so you had best make it a sturdy, well anchored shelf...

Forrest Proper
July, 2004



Home |*| Ordering |*| Our Books
footer.jpg (15431 bytes)