Sub Navigation

Print this Page. Send this Page.

Profile of an Encyclopaedia

Document from the Zurich Project

"Frageraster zum Erstellen eines Steckbriefs für eine Enzyklopädie"

Translation made by Sabine Michel

Issues to Consider in Compiling a Profile of an Encyclopaedia 

The title of the work, particularly if metaphorical: "Thesaurus" (treasure) --- "Gazophylacium" (treasure house) --- "Aurifodina" (gold hoard/mine) --- "Promptuarium" (armoury) --- "Theatrum" (stage) --- "Acerra" (container of aromatic scents) etc.

The knowledge-constitutive interests (Habermas) of the encyclopaedia in question; intention: e.g. 'Enlightenment' (with its implicit educational optimism).

Pragmatic function (apart from the trivial function of conveying information) of providing specific knowledge for a target readership: preacher / scholar / podestà / land owner / citizen / schoolboy / etc.

Range of topics: plants and creatures, natural objects, artefacts, people, places, historical events, customs of foreign peoples, technical and technological know-how, trade, law, economy, moral codes, foreign words, numinous entities (angels, devil, sacraments, rites etc.), human body and soul, etc.

Emphasis: Which topics are dealt with primarily, which are missing and why? Are there any references to the (as yet) unknown? Justification of the knowledge content with regard to the readership.

How are the lemmata selected, or: how ('by which corners') are the items of knowledge pinned down so that they may be retrieved by users? (This would appear unproblematic in the case of an alphabetically organised encyclopaedia: according to the words for things...).

Arrangement / disposition of the material: based upon the course of the year, following the hierarchy of being (from angel to stone), on the basis of the creation week (the hexaemeron), following the structure of the catechism or the calendar, or corresponding to the image of the arbor porphyriana (from Porphyr's Isagoge to Melvil Dewey's Decimal Classification). Does the arrangement shed light on the purpose of the encyclopaedia or the world-view inherent in it?

Information retrieval: by means of taxonomy (tree structures) --- on the basis of well-known patterns such as the Decalogue --- alphabetically --- using the technique of cross-references (les renvois) and indexes

Necessary background knowledge on the part of the user: What semantic and general knowledge is required to understand the article?

Composition of the individual articles, stylistic realisation: as a dialogue, narrative, treaty --- thematic progression --- degree of abstraction --- stylistic change of the articles over time --- which logical types of sentence occur?

Sources of knowledge? (Books, empiricism, etc.); How accurately are the sources indicated? What is said about the credibility of the authorities?Criticism of previous knowledge? Discussion of contradictions, inconsistencies?

Does the encyclopaedia enable its users to find further information independently?

Do the articles pass judgement on certain things?

Allocation of meaning: Are objects interpreted (allegorically or otherwise)? Does the encyclopaedia confirm physico-theological assumptions?

Illustrations: Types of image (e.g. section views of technical constructions), role and effectiveness of the graphic medium compared to the text?

Is there a noticeable coherence of the known, or at least a hint of it?

Does the encyclopaedia have a claim to universality? Based on what? (Titles such as "de mundo"; the scale of creation from God to minor things (stones, insects...); from Genesis to Apocalypse; from alpha to omega; symbolic number (Garzoni has 153 chapters).

Further considerations 

The intellectual climate in which encyclopaedias flourish --- encyclopaedias in the context of the prevailing educational system (septem artes etc.), and in the context of contemporary ideas and theories (the Sophists in antiquity; 'knowledge explosion' in the 16th century; critical examination and the democratic impulse during the Enlightenment; bourgeoisie in the 19th century)

Approach chosen by the compilers: informers (e.g. Matthias Flacius Illyricus was supported by a whole office of editors); excerpting techniques (cf. Morhof).

Growth in material from one edition to the next (e.g. Josephus Lange, "Polzanthea" 1618: 616 octavo pages ---> 1645: 3206 folio columns)

Traditional paths of knowledge: Lycosthenes --- Zwinger --- Beyerlinck

The reworking of the originally alphabetically arranged Enyclopédie into an edition organised by subject areas (Ch. Panckoucke 1787ff.)

 Relation between techniques of information retrieval and mnemonics (right up to the 'icons' on computer screens).

History of criticism of encyclopaedias: Fischart's Catalogus (a mock-encyclopaedia), Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia epidemica, or Treatise on Vulgar Errors (1646), Bayle. --- Fantastic encyclopaedias (Rabelais).

Ideology of the encyclopaedists, as represented in prefaces, metatextual passages and suchlike, e.g. in the entry for "Encyclopédie" in the Encyclopédie (Volume 5, 1755).

Imports from the encyclopaedia into works of fiction ('belles-lettres'). Examples: Grimmelshausen, Jean Paul, Thomas Mann.

Connection between printed encyclopaedias and cabinets of curiosity (Wunderkammern,including cabinets of natural curiosities and art cabinets).

And finally: What could modern research into knowledge organisation in fields such as linguistics, cognitive psychology, educational science, or sociology contribute towards an explanation of how encyclopaedias work?