The lasting appeal of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
April 10, 2012 | 11:48 pm
The Guardian has an interesting retrospective on the famed 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911. This edition of the encyclopedia is one of the most renowned and romanticized, for a number of reasons. The fact that it was the first encyclopedia to be issued all at once, rather than volume by volume, might have something to do with it. But also, it represents one of the last great repositories of knowledge before humanity lost its innocence in the First World War.
With the publication of the final volumes of the 11th, in the spring of 1911, came the last stand of the Enlightenment. One year later the Titanic would strike an iceberg. Three years later, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Five years later, a staggering 1.25m people would die in the Battle of the Somme. And the world would never be the same.
And it is also a great source of knowledge on historical figures who were important back in the day but now have been largely forgotten save for their entries in those ancient pages.
Of course, the encyclopedia is not entirely praiseworthy. As the Guardian points out, it includes all the racial attitudes common to its day that we have since outgrown (or at least tried to). But still, the encyclopedia has an unmistakable appeal to lovers of history and lovers of old books alike.
But there’s something the Guardian doesn’t mention that makes it worth bringing up here: since it is in the public domain, the encyclopedia is available in large part on-line, via several different digitization projects. The Internet Archive has a Britannica 1911 repository, and Project Gutenberg is working on a version of its own. There are also a couple of wikis that feature edited versions of the articles. So anyone who wants to know what people in 1911 thought about everything in the world can find out with a few clicks of a mouse.