Encyclopedias are a basic information source in every library, so much so that they are often taken for granted and overlooked. It is important, therefore, that each librarian become familiar with the encyclopedias in the collection and the types of information they have.

Although works resembling encyclopedias were known as far back as ancient Greece, a Frenchman named Denis Diderot (1713-1784) is generally regarded as the father of the modem encyclopedia. In his work, entitled ENCYCLOPEDIA, he defined his purpose in preparing his encyclopedia: “The aim of the encyclopedia is to gather together the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to set forth its general plan to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to the men who will come after us, in order that the labors of past centuries may not have been in vain.” The purpose of encyclopedias remains to gather information from many diverse sources and present it in a comprehensible and easy-to-use format.

Encyclopedias can be roughly divided into two basic types - namely general and specialized. We will discuss the latter very briefly, as a small library will probably have few if any encyclopedias of this type.

Specialized encyclopedias differ from general encyclopedias in that they attempt to cover only one subject area, rather than the entire scope of human knowledge. They are similar, however, in that they consist of a series of articles which are arranged alphabetically and are generally written by different authors and include an Index. Examples of specialized encyclopedias are THE INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION AND ETHICS, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EDUCATION, and THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY. While it is unlikely that a small library will have many encyclopedias of this type, it is nevertheless wise to be aware of their existence for possible patron referral. For example, most general encyclopedias will have only a brief article on the subject of kindergarten, but the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EDUCATION has a very good article on the subject. Similarly, it will be difficult to find a detailed treatment of existentialism in a general encyclopedia, but the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY provides a detailed article, which includes a bibliography.

General encyclopedias, on the other hand, are an essential tool in even the smallest libraries. In order to get the maximum use out of encyclopedias it is important to keep several points in mind. First of all, while the basic arrangement of an encyclopedia is alphabetical, and the bulk of material on a given subject will be in the article about that topic, there is a wealth of information scattered through the encyclopedia under different headings. For example, in a recent edition of the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA there is a long article in the Macropaedia volume under "Horses," but there are also an additional 36 entries under "Horses" in the Micropaedia Ready Reference and Index, ranging from "African Livestock" to "Walking Movement Sequence." While not every encyclopedia has an index, it is helpful to know how to use such an index.

It is also helpful to be aware of the special features included in different encyclopedias. For example, many encyclopedias include bibliographies, either at the end of the article, or, as in the case of COLLIER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA, gathered together at the end of the work. These bibliographies are helpful in suggesting sources of additional information for patrons interested in the topic.

General encyclopedias are also good sources for such things as maps, illustrations, charts, diagrams, pronunciations, and so on. When searching for illustrations, it is important to remember that the material might be in another place other than the main article on the topic. For example, there will probably be pictures of elephants in the main article on the topic, but there may be additional pictures in articles about such topics as "Africa," "Asia," "Circus, and so on. The index of an encyclopedia will generally indicate where illustrations are located. If the encyclopedia is not indexed, try checking under other headings if you do not find the illustration that you need in the first article that you check.

Finally, an encyclopedia will often contain information which you might not expect to find in a general encyclopedia. For example, the WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA contains pictures of different types of fishing lures (under "Fishing"); a list of the Postmasters General of the United States (under "Postal Service, U.S."); a list of philosophic terms and their definitions (under "Philosophy"); and a list of common abbreviations (under "Abbreviations"). As a result, it is a good idea to acquaint yourself with the encyclopedias in your collection and learn to use them as fully as possible.

Encyclopedias are often the tool of choice when someone needs an overview of a subject, or is beginning research on a topic.

Complete the Encyclopedias Practice Questions.

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This page was last updated on March 10, 2003.