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Encyclopedic Collections

Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia (77 C.E.) is often cited as an early encyclopedic work. His thirty-seven books and 2,493 chapters collated information from over four hundred authors, offering (in his estimate) some twenty thousand facts about the natural history of animals, objects, and techniques. However, Pliny was not concerned with the unity of knowledge or the relations between disciplines. Instead, he managed to give "encyclopedia" a wider denotation by announcing in his opening epistle that the Greeks meant by this a complete body of arts and sciences. Pliny thereby forged a link between natural history and the notion of encyclopedism imagined as comprehensiveness. During the Renaissance the Natural History came to be seen as a museum catalog, a shopping list for assembling a cabinet of curiosities. Moreover, the activity of collecting was informed by the ideal of encyclopedic learning. By possessing rare or otherwise valuable objects, an individual collector displayed his knowledge of them, their classical literary associations, and their place in a larger schema, such as the Great Chain of Being. The polymath Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680) established a museum in the Jesuit College in Rome and regarded it as his "enciclopedia concreta" (actual or tangible encyclopedia). Gabriel Naudé, in his Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (1627; Instruction concerning establishing a library), declared that a library should represent the encyclopedic circle of learning. The architecture of the buildings (museums and libraries) that held such treasures was often seen as a physical expression of the encyclopedia, now increasingly regarded as a model or microcosm of divine creation.

Eventually, however, large collections began to tell against the notion of the individual collector as knowing his possessions as one might be said to know the seven liberal arts. Sir Hans Sloane's (1660–1753) private collection (the founding collection of the British Museum) comprised some forty thousand books, three thousand manuscripts, and two hundred thousand objects, such as coins and medals, natural history, anthropological specimens, and other curious items. Such collections were often called "encyclopedic," but this now indicated that they were so extensive as to be beyond the capacities of a single mind, or memory. By at least the early 1700s critics were saying that once a collection reached a certain size, its value must be found in the various uses different people might make of it. Encyclopedism, in this guise, severed its link with the notion of the "encyclopedia" as a path of individual learning.

It is also possible to consider encyclopedism as supporting the notion of virtual collections. Conrad Gesner's (1516–1565) Bibliotheca universalis (1545; Universal library) was a bibliography of all known books—eighteen hundred authors and ten thousand titles—rather than a catalog of any existing library. During the eighteenth century, attempts to classify books, objects, or aspects of nature—even if not held in any collection—were regarded as encyclopedic because they allowed a large number of things to be comprehended by a single person, independent of being actually seen or touched. This is how the taxonomies of the plant and animal worlds, such as those of Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), were understood and promoted.

In German universities from the eighteenth century, particular disciplines were given "encyclopedic" arrangements, so that encyclopedias of philology, law, and medicine were offered as introductory and summary courses within particular departments. As Henri Abrams wrote in his Encyclopédie juridique (1855; Juridical encyclopedia), "An encyclopedia may be regarded in general as a synthetic plan embracing a science in all its parts."

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEncyclopedism - The Circle Of Learning, Encyclopedic Collections, Alphabetical Encyclopedias, Bibliography