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What is an Encyclopedia?

Diana Bocco
Updated May 23, 2024
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An encyclopedia is a book, or series of books, that contains general information about many topics and subjects. While often found with dictionaries in resource libraries, encyclopedias may be much longer and contain more information about the subjects within them. In the past, these works were collected in multiple published volumes. More modern publications, however, include digital formats such as software on a disc or websites with information on them.

Format and Purpose

Some people can confuse an encyclopedia with a dictionary, although they are inherently quite different. A dictionary offers definitions of words, occasionally accompanied by illustrations, to provide the reader with the meaning of individuals terms or phrases. On the other hand, an encyclopedia explores topics in greater depth and more often includes illustrations, maps, and photographs. While most encyclopedias are organized alphabetically, some are arranged by categories or cross-referenced articles to allow for easier reading.

Readers can find a wide range of subjects within these volumes, making them excellent research texts. Historical events, such as the dates and major battles of various wars; scientific information, like pertinent data regarding different theories; and popular culture, such as names and short biographies of various celebrities, can all be found in these volumes. As time goes on, publishers make revisions and release new volumes with more information, to keep them relevant.

Historical Encyclopedias

Pliny the Elder wrote the first documented encyclopedia in the first century BC with the help of his nephew. This work consisted of 37 volumes and covered subjects ranging from anthropology and human physiology to agriculture, painting, and pharmacology. Through the following few centuries, encyclopedias adopted a religious overtone. The first Christian edition was published in 560 AD, and the first Muslim volume came to light soon after.

One of the longest encyclopedias ever was created in 1403 when the Yongle Encyclopedia was published in China. It consisted of 11,000 handwritten volumes; most of the original work has been lost through the centuries, and less than 400 volumes survive today. The word "encyclopedia" comes from the Greek enkyklia paideia, which means "a general knowledge." It has been in use for at least 500 years, since the publishing of Encyclopaedia, or Knowledge of the World of Disciplines in 1559.

Modern Formats

In the 20th century, the Encyclopedia Britannica became the most well known western work of this type. Topical encyclopedias also came into popularity, covering topics as varied as economics, bioethics, or Judaica. Toward the end of the century, many publishers began releasing them in digital formats such as Compact Discs (CDs) and Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs).

Some encyclopedias have become entirely available online, with no corresponding print version. One of the most important advantages of online encyclopedias is that they can be edited frequently, so they remain up to date. Traditionally, a single writer wrote an encyclopedia alone or as a collaborative effort with peers, but a team of writers, who often have no face to face contact with each other, can now put together numerous volumes at a distance.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various businesses. With a data-focused approach and a talent for sharing engaging stories, Diana’s written work gets noticed and drives results.
Discussion Comments
By SarahSon — On Nov 29, 2012

I have an uncle who used to work as a salesman selling encyclopedia sets. He would go door to door trying to sell children's encyclopedia sets to families. Even back then, I think this would have been a hard way to make a living. I wonder what has happened to all those sets he sold.

Nobody would be interested in all those books anymore because you could get all that information from your smartphone or tablet now.

By bagley79 — On Nov 28, 2012

When I was growing up my parents invested in a set of World Book encyclopedias. I know this was a sacrifice for them because we didn't have a lot of money, but they felt like they were investing in our education.

With the entire set of these encyclopedias we could thoroughly do our research and homework at home. We didn't have to rely on using the library when it was open or lugging home heavy books.

My parents still have all of these encyclopedias. They probably wouldn't be worth much money today because most people would get this information from a CD or the internet now. They were also printed many years ago, and would be lacking in a lot of current information.

By sunshined — On Nov 28, 2012
@golf07 -- I agree, sites like that are great. My biggest concern with some of the online encyclopedias is that anyone can edit them. I don't know for sure how this works, but it would make me a little nervous totally relying on one online encyclopedia source.

By golf07 — On Nov 27, 2012
@anon149796 -- The computer really has made a difference when it comes to encyclopedias. I like the fact that the online versions are updated on a regular basis. If you rely on the printed version of an encyclopedia you may be using outdated information.

When I am looking for research information, the first place I go is to a free online encyclopedia.

By anon158816 — On Mar 08, 2011

thanks. me and my mom are trying to study for nine weeks tests and had to look up the answer. this website is clearly the best out of all of them i found!

By anon149796 — On Feb 05, 2011

encyclopedia is the book i understand very well. it's just that nowadays you get everything in the net. but notwithstanding, it still remains the best. --Rosemary

By ismail — On Sep 23, 2009

I think 560 BC should be 560 AD

By nasturtium — On Sep 16, 2008

I wonder if the Internet has now made encyclopedias totally obsolete. If you think about it, it takes an awful lot of resources to produce encyclopedias and then to have to update them every year or so to stay up to date? And then all the people and schools who have to buy the new encyclopedias every year - the Internet is not only much easier but much more economical.

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various...
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