An encyclopedic view of the world
What did we do before Wikipedia?
26 May 2017
Wikipedia is just the most recent manifestation of our desire to produce a compendium of knowledge, a reference source of useful facts and information. When we wonder about the world that surrounds us, how it functions, what happened in the past, what something is called, who was that person and much more, where do we turn? At first we looked to tribal elders, the “wise men” or “wise women” to give us the answers. But as writing developed so too did works that attempted to draw together explanations for those who sought answers to their questions.
The earliest surviving example of what we would now call an encyclopedia is Pliny’s Natural history. His ambitious aim was to cover everything then known about “the natural world, or life”. The work is divided into 37 books, organised into ten volumes. These cover topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, painting, and precious stones. While encyclopaedic in scope, it doesn’t look like a modern encyclopedia with alphabetically arranged separate entries. Instead it follows the Aristotelian division of nature into the categories animal, vegetable, mineral, and then does a narrative sweep through these.
Many other encyclopedic works followed in both Europe, Asia and the Arab world. In fact, the success of all of these encyclopedic works for adults, alongside the rise in education for children, led in the 17th century to the first work that could be designated as a type of encyclopedia for children. Orbis sensualium pictus (The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures) is said to be the first children’s picture book and also attempts to provide a compilation of information on a broad range of subjects. Originally published in 1658 in Latin and German, the Orbis is illustrated with 150 pictures to accompany the text. This pictorial approach was an innovation in education for the young, as was using both the vernacular (in this case German for the original edition) in addition to Latin. The Orbis was hugely popular. At one point it was the most used textbook in Europe for elementary education, and was translated into most European and some Oriental languages. The Library holds a lovely facsimile edition of the English translation reproduced from The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, Toronto Public Library, in 1982.
The author of the Orbis was John Comenius, a Czech by birth, who is considered the father of modern education as well as being a theologian and philosopher. The Orbis is a fascinating mix of topics, ranging from the mundane to the religious/philosophical. In the 1st chapter children learn how “to speak out rightly” by imitating animal noises. The Orbis then shifts to the philosophical and religious.
The following chapters cover a wide variety of God’s creations. There are chapters on various birds, insects and animals, on the elements, plants, and man and his anatomical features in surprising detail, including words for each finger, and also his soul.
Other chapters cover more mundane topics such as agricultural and commercial practices including honey-making, beer-brewing, bread-baking, shoe-cobbling, and box-making. The later chapters of the book concentrate on the activities of learned elites, such as music, philosophy, astronomy, and a number of virtues like temperance and fortitude.
And after the dedicated student has mastered all of these the Orbis introduces him to recreational activities such as tennis, dice games, and fencing. The Orbis provides a really fascinating insight into the knowledge, metaphysics, dwellings, day-to-day work and recreational activities of the times.
In the 18th century came the rise of what we might call the “modern” idea of an encyclopedia, organised in a more systematic, often alphabetical manner rather than into topics or subject categories. The most famous of these include Chambers' Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences and of course the Encyclopædia Britannica.
As with many substantial publications from that period, subscriptions were sought for the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and it was published in parts to make it more affordable. The original proposal was published on June 8, 1768 and includes a description of the proposed volumes.
The encyclopedia publishing world was obviously quite a competitive marketplace, and I love this advertisement from the Norfolk Chronicle of 26 October 1793 spruiking the advantages of the New Royal Encyclopaedia and Cyclopaedia, or complete Modern and universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences over two of its competitors. The advertisement asserts that it is a work “peculiarly calculated for the advancement of science and the improvement of the arts; and to extend universal literature among readers of every class and denomination… it will comprise the whole substance of those voluminous and expensive works Chamber’s Cyclopaedia, the Encyclopaedia Britannica....The copper plates are larger, more numerous, and contain a far greater diversity of subjects than any other work of the kind can boast of….The purchase of this work is near ten guineas cheaper than Chamber’s Cyclopaedia, and fourteen pounds less than the Encyclopaedia Britannica…."
Special encyclopedias aimed at the younger market also continued to be produced, and it is surprising how soon information about the flora and fauna of Australia began to appear in these. The Library holds a copy of a German and French language children’s encyclopedia, published between 1798 and 1830 in 12 volumes, titled Bilderbuch für Kinder : enthaltend eine angenehme Sammlung von Thieren, Pflanzen, Blumen, Fruchten It contains at least sixty references to Australian flora and fauna including insects, fish, animals such as the kangaroo, possum, koala, wombat, potoroo, native cat, platypus and echidna as well as birds such as the cockatoo, black swan, parrots, sunbird and eagle and plants such as ferns, hoop pines and casuarinas. There are also descriptions and illustrations of Tasmanian Aborigines and views of Sydneytown and Hobartown.
Australians soon began to feel the lack of detailed information about the people, places, unique features and events of their country in these larger well-known “universal” encyclopedias. There were Gazetteers and an Australian handbook that provided statistical, geographic and some descriptive or directory information, but the first to attempt an encyclopedic work with Australia as its focus was David Blair’s Cyclopaedia of Australasia, or, Dictionary of facts, events, dates, persons and places connected with the discovery, exploration and progress of the British dominions in the south from the earliest dawn of discovery in the Southern Ocean to the year 1881, published in 1881. In his introduction to the work Blair laments that Australian children “are not taught as Australians at all, but as foreigners. English books, English lessons, English methods of study are those alone in use.” Never one for modesty, Blair also says “The present volume is the result of many years of diligent labour, and is the first attempt that has yet been made to systematise the entire range of facts bearing on the past history and present condition of the British possessions in the Southern Ocean.”
Blair announced the publication of his work in the Age on 13 August 1881, claiming it was “a complete Australasian library in itself…Every fact relating to the southern colonies (including Fiji and New Guinea) is faithfully registered in its pages…The expenditure of £1000 on books, and of years of research, would not suffice to put the owner of the volume in possession of the information it contains. The price is 42s.”
My goodness, how could you resist? Well, one reviewer of the work in The Australasian on 1 October 1881 was certainly not persuaded. In his lengthy and scathing critical review he comments that “It would be endless to attempt to give any idea of the omissions and incongruities of this work. We have an article on the Kangaroo but none on the Wombat, one on the Dingo but none on the Opossum, and one on the Laughing Jackass but none on the Emu.... The fact is that the book exhibits the most wholesome case of plagiarism that has ever come under our notice”.
Probably the best known and most highly regarded work was the Australian encyclopedia, and I was very pleased to learn that there is a library connection! First published in 1924-25 in 2 volumes, it had a long gestation period. According to the introduction it was first mooted in 1912 under the editorship of Charles H. Bertie, Municipal Librarian at Sydney who began collecting material until WWI temporarily suspended work. There is a rather amusing snide remark about the delay in an article in the Western champion of 15 May 1924. It reports that the manager of the English Rugby Team said the Australians had as much chance as “a cat in hell without claws” of beating the English and the reporter comments that he has no idea what that phrase means, but “perhaps the long-delayed Australian encyclopedia will supply the deficiency.” Definitely some sharpened claws apparent there I think.
At first the intention was that the Australian encyclopedia would concentrate on history and biography, but with resumption of work on the publication in 1917 it was decided to also include material on the sciences and Herbert Carter who later became the President of the Linnean Society of NSW was employed to take on the task of editor for this material. In 1920 Captain Arthur Jose, retired from the Intelligence Branch of the Australian Navy Office, was employed as the general editor. Interestingly Miss Persia Campbell, M.A. and M.SC, joined the staff as assistant editor in 1923. She was quite a remarkable woman, an economist, feminist and social activist.
Persia’s cleverness, confidence and public speaking talents were evident from her childhood days. An article from the Hawkesbury Herald on 4 March 1904 when Persia would have been just 6 years old, describes a social evening at the Yarramundi Presbyterian Church to distribute Sunday school prizes and welcome the Rev. J. T. Main. Persia gave a recitation and the reporter notes that “Though Persia is young, she stood up like a little woman and went through the recitation without the faintest sign of nervousness, and justly received a great ovation”. She also won two of the prizes, one “for learning lessons” and the other a “special (presented by Messrs Woodhill and Co)”.
Several years later, when she was 11, the Richmond and Windsor Gazette 0f 18 September 1909 published a poem by Persia called “My Mother”.
The Library holds a fascinating collection of correspondence between Jose, Carter and some of the contributors to the Australian encyclopedia that provides an insight into the process of compiling the articles. There are letters seeking contributions, describing what was required, replies from contributors, referrals to other possible sources and many other details.
The care and concern for accuracy evinced by the contributors is exemplified in a letter that Professor T.G. Tucker, who was writing the article on education, sent out to some schools. He expressed his frustration at the lack of consistent information available and so to ensure the completeness of his article he enclosed some questions for each school to answer so that he could compile a complete picture.
There are letters reassuring contributors that all significant original articles would have the authors attributed, including joint authors, by using initials at end of each article. There is a key at the beginning of the first volume of the Australian encyclopedia showing initials and full names/qualifications of the significant contributors (in contrast to Blair’s work!). I was intrigued to find that some things in the public service never change. In the 8 January 1920 issue of the Commonwealth Government gazette, there is a notice from the Home and Territories Department granting C.H. Wickens of the Statistical Branch permission to engage in outside employment to “contribute certain articles to the Encyclopedia of Australia and accept fees payable for such articles”.
There is an interesting letter from the linguist Sidney Herbert Ray, who wrote the article on Aboriginal languages, suggesting to Jose that a more comprehensive work on Australian indigenous languages was certainly needed and that perhaps Jose might recommend this to Angus and Robertson as a possibility. Sadly it doesn’t appear that Ray’s offer was ever taken up by A&R.
There is also a fascinating series of letters between Jose and Dr Robin Tillyard regarding his wife Patricia’s coloured illustrations of insects to be reproduced as plates in the Encyclopedia. The letters describe the time that would be required for such high quality, skilled work and include negotiations on the price to be paid for it. The doluble plate for the insects took her 12 months of work. The resulting plate is beautiful, and a testament to Patricia’s skills as a scientific illustrator.
Patricia and her husband Robin were prominent in the Canberra community and the ANU. Patricia was interviewed in 1967 for the NLA’s oral history collection and you can listen online. In recognition of her contribution to insect illustration she has a species of dragonfly named after her, the waterfall redspot, scientific name Austropetalia patricia (Tillyard). The Tillyard Prize awarded by the ANU also commemorates Dr Robin and Patricia Tillyard.
When the Australian encyclopedia was finally published, it received much more positive reviews than David Blair’s effort. A reviewer in the Sydney mail of 19 August 1925 lauded it as compelling “the admiration of every lover of the literature of reference”.
But my favourite encyclopedia from the Library’s collection is undoubtedly the Sanitarium children’s abbreviated Australian encyclopaedia. It had blank spaces with captions scattered throughout the text, and the owner could collect coloured cards, presumably from the packets of Sanitarium breakfast cereal and other products, to match with the captions and glue into the spaces provided. The Library’s copy has all the coloured picture cards lovingly glued in, and the handwritten name and address of Daphne McMahon inscribed on both the cover and title page indicates that we probably have Daphne to thank for diligently collecting and pasting the cards.