What do we Think an Encyclopaedia is?


  • Katharine Schopflin University College London’s Department of Information Studies, UK




Encyclopaedias, publishing, reference books, information-seeking behavior, book history


The death of the encyclopaedia is increasingly reported in connection with the abandonment of hard copy reference publishing, the dispersal of library reference collections and the preference for end-users to seek information from search engines and social media. Yet this particular form of the book evolved in a very specific way to meet the needs of knowledge-seekers, needs which persist and perhaps flourish in an age of information curiosity. This article uncovers what is meant by ‘encyclopaedia’ by those who produce and use them. Based on survey and interview research carried out with publishers, librarians and higher education students, it demonstrates that certain physical features and qualities are associated with the encyclopaedia and continue to be valued by them. Having identified these qualities, the article then explores whether they apply to three incidences of electronic encyclopaedias, Britannica Online, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia. Could it be that rather than falling into obsolescence, their valued qualities are being adopted by online forms of knowledge provision?


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How to Cite

Schopflin, K. (2014) “What do we Think an Encyclopaedia is?”, Culture Unbound, 6(3), pp. 483–503. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.146483.



Theme: Changing Orders of Knowledge? Encyclopedias in Transition