Knowledge and the Systematic Reader: The Past and Present of Encyclopedic Learning
Keywords:Systematic reading, encyclopedism, encyclopedias, Encyclopædia Britannica, Enlightenment, knowledge production, history of reading
Though digital media have unquestionably affected the features and functions of modern encyclopedias, such works also continue to be shaped by factors thoroughly conventional by the end of the historical Enlightenment. As William Smellie, editor of the first Encyclopædia Britannica (1768-71) wrote, “utility ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind.” The “instructional designers” and “user-experience specialists” of the online Britannica are the inheritors of all those authors and editors who before and after Smellie’s time devised different plans and methods intended to maximize the utility of their works. The definition of utility and with it the nature of encyclopedic knowledge continues to change both because of and despite technological difference; if digitization has in some ways advanced the ideals of Enlightenment encyclopedias, then it has in other ways allowed for the re-inscription of certain flaws and limitations that encyclopedias like the Britannica were specifically designed to overcome. By examining not only what one might read in the encyclopedia but also the ways in which one might read it, this article demonstrates the extent to which the notion of encyclopedic utility depends on historical context.
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