A thirst for knowledge


I confess – I have a craving for facts, for knowing things. Whilst I have an array of free online sources at my disposal for ‘on-demand’ knowledge, the same cannot be said of my eighteenth-century predecessors whose own quest for knowledge became remarkable feats in themselves.

The Enlightenment was the age of encyclopaedias, and the construction of such compendiums – which topics to include, which to leave out and how, crucially, to arrange the topics – was a remarkable feat. Although the Diderot et al. Encyclopédie is greatest project of the period, the encyclopedia legacy was considerably expanded by other reference works that have tended to pale in its shadow.

In her book From ‘Encyclopédie’ to ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’: revision and expansion Kathleen Doig delves into Charles Joseph Panckoucke’s vast Méthodique, and compares its construction and genealogy to the earlier Encyclopédie. Panckoucke’s intent was to resolve the inherent disorder of the Encyclopédie due to the alphabetical arrangement of entries. He chose to arrange his œuvre as a series of subject-specific dictionaries with overviews or treatises at the beginning of each series, followed by alphabetised entries on relevant terms. Through this we can see how, in the Enlightenment, knowledge was already being packaged in different formats according to the editor’s view of the public appetite. Panckoucke, for instance, regarded his market as the ‘informed layperson’ who wanted a self-study course in a certain subject area.


Today’s encyclopedias, such as the Britannica, have gone a long way down the road of market segmentation, with different editions for the home user, the student and the academic library. Most investment goes into online versions so as to compete with and provide value over and above what Wikipedia and similarly-modelled free encyclopedias can offer. Whilst I can retrieve information and facts within the click of a mouse, access to knowledge in the eighteenth century was limited and only available to the literate few who could afford it. The issue I face is what to believe in the free, openly edited encyclopedias. This is where a modern-day Diderot or Panckoucke is needed.

–Lyn Roberts