Encyclopedias Are Time Capsules

How collections of knowledge remain useful even after they’re outdated: An Object Lesson

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Long before Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica there was Pliny the Elder: a first-century Roman soldier, a statesman, and a voracious scholar. His assistants read to him while he ate dinner, while he bathed, and while he sunbathed. All the while, Pliny took notes. He started work at midnight, preferred light meals, and scoffed at sleep. He even regarded walking as a waste of time; his assistants carried him around Rome in a chair, while he read (of course).

All of this was research for what was to be his final work, Historia Naturalis (Natural History), published in 77 A.D. and considered earth’s oldest surviving encyclopedia. There are 2,500 chapters, arranged into 37 volumes, covering everything from astronomy to walnuts to a legendary one-eyed Eurasian tribe called the Arimaspi.

“No Roman author has attempted the same project,” Pliny proudly declared in a dedication to Emperor Titus, “nor has any Greek treated all these matters single-handed.” He died two years after publishing it, killed by a rain of hot ash while attempting to rescue a friend from an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

Chaos cannot be tamed, but it can be recorded for posterity. And there is perhaps no object more lasting than the encyclopedia. An attempt to organize the knowledge and history of our world, encyclopedias also can transcend our world. Like a charmed gift passed through the ages, encyclopedias are slowly eclipsed by the history they were created to capture until they become more relic than record. They begin their lives as a tool and end them as a time capsule.

Browse Amazon today and you’ll see how far the encyclopedia has evolved—or, perhaps, devolved. There’s the Encyclopedia of Tennis, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the Encyclopedia of Snakes, and a litany of Encyclopedias of Sex. The label “encyclopedia” has been hijacked for its cerebral capital, slapped strategically onto any book attempting to tap a topic’s information—as much as anything else, it’s now a marketing meme, a strategy for making money.

But was it ever not? “In the quest for complete digests and compendia of knowledge, people have always and unquestioningly paid for millions of words they would probably never read,” writes Robert Collison in his 1966 book, Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages. What better racket than publishing a costly, engorged tome that customers must buy again in a few years? There were once 2,300 door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salespeople. One of the last remaining was Myron Taxman, who peddled the books for almost 30 years. “I loved the challenge of making the sale. It was me against them,” he told reporters in 2012, the same year Britannica, founded in Scotland 247 years ago, printed its last encyclopedia.

Still, there remains something soul-stirring about Pliny. “The world is sacred,” he says early on, “finite yet resembling the infinite, of all things certain yet resembling the uncertain, embracing in its grasp all things without and within.” Natural History is more than a compendium of knowledge; it’s a guide for how to live. A manifesto. Pliny reminds his countrymen that food comes from the land, not the market, and medicine comes from herbs, not doctors. He scolds us for our wars, our plundering of the sea, our zeal for minerals: “We penetrate her innermost parts, digging into her veins of gold and silver … we drag out Earth’s entrails.”

It was easy for Pliny to criticize. After all, he was rich, a member of the Roman equestrian order who was bred on figs and shrimp and saffron cake. “Natural History wasn’t written with the masses in mind at all,” says the Duke University Pliny scholar William Johnson.

And the writers who came after him didn’t consider the masses much, either. Take the encyclopedist Felix Capella, whose fanciful fifth-century work Satiricon was an allegory for a divine wedding. Or Cassiodorus, who compiled his epic sixth-century encyclopedia while holed up in a monastery. Or the Brethren of Purity encyclopedia, written by a mysterious group of 10th-century Iraqis, which aimed to construct a universal religious philosophy. Or China’s 15th-century Yongle Encyclopedia. For 600 years it was the world’s largest, but the only two copies were owned by the emperor. Medieval encyclopedias were not for the common people; they were for priests and kings.

That changed in 1751 with the publication of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, a general encyclopedia consisting of 71,818 articles and 2,885 illustrated plates. Encyclopédie focused particular attention on a subject rarely treated in print: humans as organic machines, wrangling the materials of the universe in the name of progress. The project discussed clock-making, lock-making, needle-making, nail-making, coin-minting, gut-dressing, silversmithing, ironworking, waxworking, dancing, and spermaceti refining. Writers subtly razzed the Church: They draped the Pope in Japanese robes and depicted the Holy Spirit as a ridiculous bird. “The book was dangerous,” says Robert Darnton in The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie. “They had rearranged the cognitive universe and reoriented man within it, while elbowing God outside.”

On September 3, 1759, Pope Clement XII ordered all Catholics owning copies of the Encyclopédie to turn them over to a priest for burning or face excommunication. Publishers responded by issuing the books under a different name. The controversy enhanced the work’s popularity, and subscriptions poured in. “He had finished one of the greatest literary enterprises in the whole history of mankind,” the encyclopedia historian Robert Collison writes of Diderot. “He had revolutionized the concept of the encyclopedia in the world of learning and, though he may not have intended it, he had contributed very substantially by his work to the French Revolution itself.”

Who shall build the epic encyclopedia of our times, the one that lasts 2,000 years, or delivers us from tyranny? Collison counts several problems with contemporary encyclopedias: They are biased, easily obsolete, expensive—the 2012 Britannica cost $1,395—and incomprehensible for people not fluent in whatever language they happen to have been printed. Enter former futures-trader Jimmy Wales and his Wikipedia, which aspires to create “a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” Wikipedia addresses all of Collison’s complaints: It is free, updated constantly, penned by the masses and available in numerous languages.

But Wikipedia has its own problems. Products become obsolete, companies go bust, and digital information deteriorates. “There are new barbarians at the gate,” the Quebecois information consultant Terry Kuny announced at a 1997 conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. “We are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages.”

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Some objects can travel further in time and further in space than the humans who created them. Launched in 1977 to study the outer planets, Voyager I is now zooming past Pluto. Aboard is a 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph record containing a selection of equations, images, and sounds from Earth: the diagram of a fetus, a message from President Jimmy Carter, recordings of Azerbaijani bagpipe music. This is the Golden Record, compiled by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Inscribed on the cover is a key intended to show aliens how to play it.

The Golden Record is a narrow representation of what it means to live on our planet. A few years ago back, the Houston-based aerospace company Celestis conceived of a more egalitarian celestial compendium: For $20, people could send their blog posts, poetry, and art into space, aboard a NASA-funded spacecraft called Sunjammer that was supposed to be used to monitor solar storms. But NASA nixed the mission in 2014, and the project—which Celestis billed as the chance to “establish an off-planet presence”—died along with it.

But an encyclopedia—celestial or earthly—is not just a record of the knowledge available to publishers at that time, it’s a record of the prejudices and gaps of knowledge, too.

Pliny was wrong when he said there were seven planets, and that Ethiopians were black from being burnt by the sun. But over the centuries these mistakes have revealed more about Pliny’s world than the accuracies. Natural History is an account that can only be given by a Roman in the year AD 77, and because of that we can truly know AD 77. Mistakes root an encyclopedia in time. Wikipedia, like its predecessors, will become an artifact of how its culture conceived of knowledge.

“It is like a circle trying to encompass the universe,” says the Diderot scholar Roger Lewinter of encyclopedias, “a task that can never be completed.” Encyclopedias aren’t really meant to record all of human knowledge, it turns out, but just some of it, for a time. Until others come along to do the same thing, but differently.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.