The Encyclopædia Britannica is a general English-language encyclopaedia published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., a privately held company. The articles in the Britannica are aimed at educated adult readers, and written by a staff of about 100 full-time editors and over 4,000 expert contributors. It is widely regarded as the most scholarly of encyclopaedias.
The Britannica is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print. It was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland and quickly grew in popularity and size, with its third edition in 1801 reaching over 21 volumes. Its rising stature helped in recruiting eminent contributors, and the 9th edition (1875–1889) and the 11th edition (1911) are regarded as landmark encyclopaedias for scholarship and literary style. Beginning with the 11th edition, the Britannica gradually shortened and simplified its articles in order to broaden its North American market. In 1933, the Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to adopt a "continuous revision" policy, in which the encyclopaedia is continually reprinted and every article is updated on a regular schedule.
The current 15th edition has a unique three-part structure: a 12-volume Micropædia of short articles (generally having fewer than 750 words), a 17-volume Macropædia of long articles (having from two to 310 pages) and a single Propædia volume intended to give a hierarchical outline of human knowledge. The Micropædia is meant for quick fact-checking and as a guide to the Macropædia; readers are advised to study the Propædia outline to understand a subject's context and to find other, more detailed articles. The size of the Britannica has remained roughly constant over the past 70 years, with about 40 million words on half a million topics. Although publication has been based in the United States since 1901, the Britannica has maintained its traditional British spelling.
Over the course of its history, the Britannica has had difficulty remaining profitable—a problem faced by many encyclopaedias. Some articles in certain earlier editions of the Britannica have been criticised for inaccuracy, bias or unqualified contributors. The accuracy in parts of the present edition have likewise been questioned, although such criticisms have been challenged by the Britannica's management. Despite these criticisms, the Britannica retains its reputation as a reliable research tool.
The Britannica has been issued in 15 official editions, with multi-volume supplements to the 3rd and 5th editions (see the Table below). Strictly speaking, the 10th edition was only a supplement to the 9th edition, just as the 12th and 13th editions were supplements to the 11th edition. The 15th edition underwent a massive re-organisation in 1985, but the updated, current version is still known as the 15th edition.
Throughout its history, the Britannica has had two aims: to be an excellent reference book and to provide educational material for those who wish to study. In 1974, the 15th edition adopted a third goal: to systematise all of human knowledge. The history of the Britannica can be divided into five main eras, punctuated by major changes in management or re-organisation of the encyclopaedia.
Since the 3rd edition, the Britannica has enjoyed a popular and critical reputation for general excellence. Various editions from the 3rd to the 9th were pirated for sale in the United States, beginning with Dobson's Encyclopædia. On the release of the 14th edition, Time magazine dubbed the Britannica the "Patriarch of the Library". In a related advertisement, naturalist William Beebe was quoted as saying that the Britannica was "beyond comparison because there is no competitor. References to the Britannica can be found throughout English literature, most notably in one of Arthur Conan Doyle's favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Red-Headed League". The tale was highlighted by the Lord Mayor of London, Gilbert Inglefield, at the bicentennial of the Britannica.
The Britannica has a popular reputation for summarising all of human knowledge. To further their education, many have devoted themselves to reading the entire Britannica, taking anywhere from three to 22 years to do so. When Fat'h Ali became the Shah of Persia in 1797, he was given a complete set of the Britannica's 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include "Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica." Writer George Bernard Shaw claimed to have read the complete 9th edition—except for the science articles—and Richard Evelyn Byrd took the Britannica as reading material for his five-month stay at the South Pole in 1934, while Philip Beaver read it during a sailing expedition. More recently, A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, read the entire 2002 version of the 15th edition, describing his experiences in the well-received 2004 book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. Only two people are known to have read two independent editions: the author C. S. Forester and Amos Urban Shirk, an American businessman, who read the 11th and 14th editions, devoting roughly three hours per night for four and a half years to read the 11th. Several editors-in-chief of the Britannica are likely to have read their editions completely, such as William Smellie (1st edition), William Robertson Smith (9th edition), and Walter Yust (14th edition).
The Britannica does not cover similar topics in equivalent detail; for example, the whole of Buddhism and most other religions is covered in a single Macropædia article, whereas 14 articles are devoted to Christianity, comprising nearly half of all religion articles. However, the Britannica has been lauded as the least biased of general encyclopedias marketed to Western readers and praised for its biographies of important women of all eras.
It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the 15th edition of the Britannica accords non-Western cultural, social, and scientific developments more notice than any general English-language encyclopedia currently on the market.|20|20|Kenneth Kister|in Kister's Best Encyclopedias (1994)
Historically, the Britannica's authors have included eminent authorities, such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Leon Trotsky. However, some of its contributors have been criticised for their lack of expertise:
With a temerity almost appalling, [the Britannica contributor, Mr. Philips] ranges over nearly the whole field of European history, political, social, ecclesiastical… The grievance is that [this work] lacks authority. This, too—this reliance on editorial energy instead of on ripe special learning—may, alas, be also counted an "Americanizing": for certainly nothing has so cheapened the scholarship of our American encyclopaedias.|20px|20px|Prof. George L. Burr|in the American Historical Review (1911)
Britannica-appointed contributors are occasionally mistaken or unscientific. A notorious instance from the Britannica's early years is the rejection of Newtonian gravity by George Gleig, the chief editor of the 3rd edition (1788–1797), who wrote that gravity was caused by the classical element of fire. However, the Britannica has also staunchly defended a scientific approach to emotional topics, as it did with William Robertson Smith's articles on religion in the 9th edition, particularly his article stating that the Bible was not historically accurate (1875).
The Britannica has always conceded that errors are inevitable in an encyclopaedia. Speaking of the 3rd edition (1788–1797), its chief editor George Gleig wrote that "perfection seems to be incompatible with the nature of works constructed on such a plan, and embracing such a variety of subjects." More recently (March 2006), the Britannica wrote that "we in no way mean to imply that Britannica is error-free; we have never made such a claim." The sentiment is expressed by its original editor, William Smellie.
With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental, we are conscious of being able to point out a greater number than any critic whatever. Men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances. To these we appeal, and shall rest satisfied with the judgment they pronounce.|20px|20px|William Smellie|in the Preface to the 1st edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica to the 1st edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica
Information can be found in the Britannica by following the cross-references in the Micropædia and Macropædia; however, these are sparse, averaging one cross-reference per page. Hence, readers are recommended to consult instead the alphabetical index or the Propædia, which organises the Britannica's contents by topic.
The core of the Propædia is its "Outline of Knowledge," which aims to provide a logical framework for all human knowledge. Accordingly, the Outline is consulted by the Britannica's editors to decide which articles should be included in the Micro- and Macropædia. The Outline is also intended to be a study guide, to put subjects in their proper perspective, and to suggest a series of Britannica articles for the student wishing to learn a topic in depth. However, libraries have found that it is scarcely used, and reviewers have recommended that it be dropped from the encyclopedia. The Propædia also has color transparencies of human anatomy and several appendices listing the staff members, advisors, and contributors to all three parts of the Britannica.
Taken together, the Micropædia and Macropædia comprise roughly 40 million words and 24,000 images. The two-volume index has 2,350 pages, listing the 228,274 topics covered in the Britannica, together with 474,675 subentries under those topics. The Britannica generally prefers British spelling over American; for example, it uses colour (not color), centre (not center), and encyclopaedia (not encyclopedia). However, there are exceptions to this rule, such as defense rather than defence. Common alternative spellings are provided with cross-references such as "Color: see Colour."
Since 1936, the articles of the Britannica have been revised on a regular schedule, with at least 10% of them considered for revision each year. According to one Britannica web-site, 46% of its articles were revised over the past three years; however, according to another Britannica web-site, only 35% of the articles were revised.
The alphabetisation of articles in the Micropædia and Macropædia follows strict rules. Diacritical marks and non-English letters are ignored, while numerical entries such as "1812, War of" are alphabetised as if the number had been written out ("Eighteen-twelve, War of"). Articles with identical names are ordered first by persons, then by places, then by things. Rulers with identical names are organised first alphabetically by country and then by chronology; thus, Charles III of France precedes Charles I of England, listed in Britannica as the ruler of Great Britain and Ireland. (That is, they are alphabetised as if their titles were "Charles, France, 3" and "Charles, Great Britain and Ireland, 1".) Similarly, places that share names are organised alphabetically by country, then by ever-smaller political divisions.
The Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006 DVD contains over 55 million words and just over 100,000 articles. This includes 73,645 regular Britannica articles, with the remainder drawn from the Britannica Student Encyclopædia, the Britannica Elementary Encyclopædia and the Britannica Book of the Year (1993–2004), plus a few "classic" articles from early editions of the encyclopaedia. The package includes a range of supplementary content including maps, videos, sound clips, animations and web links. It also offers study tools and dictionary and thesaurus entries from Merriam-Webster.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online is a Web site with more than 120,000 articles and is updated regularly. It has daily features, updates and links to news reports from The New York Times and the BBC. Subscriptions are available on a yearly, monthly or weekly basis. Special subscription plans are offered to schools, colleges and libraries; such institutional subscribers constitute an important part of Britannica's business. Articles may be accessed online for free, but only a few opening lines of text are displayed. Beginning in early 2007, the Britannica made articles freely available if they are linked to from an external site; such external links often improve an article's rankings in search engine results.
On 20 February 2007, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. announced that it was working with mobile phone search company AskMeNow to launch a mobile encyclopedia. Users will be able to send a question via text message, and AskMeNow will search Britannica's 28,000-article concise encyclopedia to return an answer to the query. Daily topical features sent directly to users' mobile phones are also planned.
On 3 June 2008, an initiative to facilitate collaboration between online expert and amateur scholarly contributors for Britannica's on-line content (in the spirit of a wiki), with editorial oversight from Britannica staff, was announced.
Dale Hoiberg, a sinologist, is the Britannica's Senior Vice President and editor-in-chief. Among his predecessors as editors-in-chief were Hugh Chisholm (1902–1924), James Louis Garvin (1926–1932), Franklin Henry Hooper (1932–1938), Walter Yust (1938–1960), Harry Ashmore (1960–1963), Warren E. Preece (1964–1968, 1969–1975), Sir William Haley (1968–1969), Philip W. Goetz (1979–1991), and Robert McHenry (1992–1997). Anita Wolff and Theodore Pappas serve as the current Deputy Editor and Executive Editor, respectively. Prior Executive Editors include John V. Dodge (1950–1964) and Philip W. Goetz.
The Britannica maintains an editorial staff of five Senior Editors and nine Associate Editors, supervised by Dale Hoiberg and four others. The editorial staff help in authoring the articles of the Micropædia and some sections of the Macropædia.
The Propædia and its Outline of Knowledge were produced by dozens of editorial advisors under the direction of Mortimer J. Adler. Roughly half of these advisors have since died, including some of the Outline's chief architects: Rene Dubos (d. 1982), Loren Eiseley (d. 1977), Harold D. Lasswell (d. 1978), Mark Van Doren (d. 1972), Peter Ritchie Calder (d. 1982) and Mortimer J. Adler (d. 2001). The Propædia also lists just under 4,000 advisors who were consulted for the unsigned Micropædia articles.
In 2003, former management consultant Jorge Aguilar-Cauz was appointed President of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Cauz is the senior executive and reports directly to the Britannica's Board of Directors. Cauz has been pursuing alliances with other companies and extending the Britannica brand to new educational and reference products, continuing the strategy pioneered by former CEO Elkan Harrison Powell in the mid-1930s.
Under Safra's ownership, the company has experienced financial difficulties, and has responded by reducing the price of its products and implementing drastic cost cuts. According to a 2003 report in the New York Post, the Britannica management has eliminated employee 401(k) accounts and encouraged the use of free images. These changes have had negative impacts, as freelance contributors have waited up to six months for checks and the Britannica staff have gone years without pay rises.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. now owns registered trademarks on the words Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Macropædia, Micropædia, and Propædia, as well as on its thistle logo. It has exercised its trademark rights as recently as 2005.
Since the early 1990s, the Britannica has faced new challenges from digital information sources. The Internet, facilitated by the development of search engines, has grown into a common source of information for many people, and provides easy access to reliable original sources and expert opinions, thanks in part to initiatives such as Google Books, MIT's release of its educational materials and the open PubMed Central library of the National Library of Medicine. In general, the Internet tends to provide more current coverage than print media, due to the ease with which material on the Internet can be updated. In rapidly changing fields such as science, technology, politics, culture and modern history, the Britannica has struggled to stay up-to-date, a problem first analysed systematically by its former editor Walter Yust. Although the Britannica is now available both in multimedia form and over the Internet, its preeminence is being challenged by other online encyclopaedias, such as Encarta and Wikipedia.
The most notable competitor of the Britannica among CD/DVD-ROM digital encyclopedias is Encarta, a modern, multimedia encyclopedia that incorporates three print encyclopedias: Funk and Wagnalls', Collier's and the New Merit Scholar. Encarta is the top-selling multimedia encyclopaedia, based on total U.S. retail sales from January 2000 to February 2006. Both occupy the same price range, with the 2007 Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate CD or DVD costing US$50 and the Microsoft Encarta Premium 2007 DVD costing US$45. The Britannica contains 100,000 articles and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary and Thesaurus (U.S. only), and offers Primary and Secondary School editions. Encarta contains 66,000 articles, a user-friendly Visual Browser, interactive maps, math, language and homework tools, a U.S. and UK dictionary, and a youth edition. Like Encarta, the Britannica has been criticised for being biased towards United States audiences; the United Kingdom-related articles are updated less often, maps of the United States are more detailed than those of other countries, and it lacks a UK dictionary. Like the Britannica, Encarta is available online by subscription, although some content may be accessed for free.
A key difference between the two encyclopaedias lies in article authorship. The 699 Macropædia articles are generally written by identified contributors, and the roughly 65,000 Micropædia articles are the work of the editorial staff and identified outside consultants. Thus, a Britannica article either has known authorship or a set of possible authors (the editorial staff). With the exception of the editorial staff, most of the Britannica's contributors are experts in their field—some are Nobel laureates. By contrast, the articles of Wikipedia are written by a community of editors with varying levels of expertise: most editors do not claim any particular expertise; of those who do, many are anonymous and have no verifiable credentials. Another difference is the pace of article change: the Britannica is published in print every few years, while Wikipedia's articles are likely to change frequently. Wikipedia has been criticised in other respects as well, and it has been argued that Wikipedia cannot hope to rival the Britannica in accuracy.
On 14 December 2005, the scientific journal Nature reported that, within 42 randomly selected general science articles, there were 162 mistakes in Wikipedia versus 123 in Britannica. In its detailed 20-page rebuttal, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. characterized Nature's study as flawed and misleading and called for a "prompt" retraction. It noted that two of the articles in the study were taken from a Britannica year book, and not the encyclopedia; another two were from Compton's Encyclopedia (called the Britannica Student Encyclopedia on the company's web site). The rebuttal went on to mention that some of the articles presented to reviewers were combinations of several articles, and that other articles were merely excerpts but were penalized for factual omissions. The company also noted that several facts classified as errors by Nature were minor spelling variations, and that several of its alleged errors were matters of interpretation. Nature defended its story and declined to retract, stating that, as it was comparing Wikipedia with the web version of Britannica, it used whatever relevant material was available on Britannica's website.
|Edition/supplement||Publication years||Size||Chief editor(s)||Notes|
|1st||1768–1771||3 volumes, 2,670 pages, 160 plates||William Smellie||Largely the work of one editor, Smellie; 30 articles longer than three pages|
|2nd||1777–1784||10 volumes, 8,595 pages, 340 plates||James Tytler||150 long articles; pagination errors; all maps under "Geography" article|
|3rd||1788–1797||18 volumes, 14,579 pages, 542 plates||Colin Macfarquhar and George Gleig||42,000 pounds profit on 10,000 copies sold; introduction of chemical symbols|
|supplement to 3rd||1801||2 volumes, 1,624 pages, 50 plates||George Gleig||Copyright owned by Thomas Bonar, first dedication to monarch|
|4th||1801–1809||20 volumes, 16,033 pages, 581 plates||James Millar||Authors first allowed to retain copyright|
|5th||1817||20 volumes, 16,017 pages, 582 plates||James Millar||Financial losses by Millar and Andrew Bell's heirs; EB rights sold to Archibald Constable|
|supplement to 5th||1816–1824||6 volumes, 4,933 pages, 125 plates1||Macvey Napier||Famous contributors recruited, such as Sir Humphry Davy, Sir Walter Scott, Malthus|
|6th||1820–1823||20 volumes||Charles Maclaren||Constable went bankrupt on 19 January 1826; EB rights eventually secured by Adam Black|
|7th||1830–1842||21 volumes, 17,101 pages, 506 plates, 187-page index||Macvey Napier, assisted by James Browne, LLD||Widening network of famous contributors, such as Sir David Brewster, Thomas de Quincey, Antonio Panizzi|
|8th||1853–1860||21 volumes, 17,957 pages, 402 plates; separate 239-page index, published 18612||Thomas Stewart Traill||Many long articles were copied from the 7th edition; 344 contributors including William Thomson|
|9th||1875–1889||24 volumes, plus one index volume||Thomas Spencer Baynes (1875–80); then W. Robertson Smith||Some carry-over from 8th edition, but mostly a new work; high point of scholarship; pirated widely in the U.S.3|
supplement to 9th
|1902–1903||11 volumes, plus the 24 volumes of the 9th4||Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace and Hugh Chisholm in London; Arthur T. Hadley & Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City||American partnership bought EB rights on 9 May 1901; high-pressure sales methods|
|11th||1910–1911||28 volumes, plus one index volume||Hugh Chisholm in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City||Another high point of scholarship and writing; more articles than the 9th, but shorter and simpler; financial difficulties for owner, Horace Everett Hooper; EB rights sold to Sears Roebuck in 1920|
supplement to 11th
|1921–1922||3 volumes, plus the 28 volumes of the 11th5||Hugh Chisholm in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City||Summarized state of the world before, during, and after World War I|
supplement to 11th
|1926||3 volumes, plus the 28 volumes of the 11th6||James Louis Garvin in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City||Replaced 12th edition volumes; improved perspective of the events of 1910–1926|
|14th||1929–1933||24 volumes 7||James Louis Garvin in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City||Publication just before Great Depression was financially catastrophic|
|revised 14th||1933–1973||24 volumes 7||Franklin Henry Hooper until 1938; then Walter Yust, Harry Ashmore, Warren E. Preece, William Haley||Began continuous revision in 1936: every article revised at least twice every decade|
|15th||1974–1984||30 volumes 8||Warren E. Preece, then Philip W. Goetz||Introduced three-part structure; division of articles into Micropædia and Macropædia; Propædia Outline of Knowledge; separate index eliminated|
|1985–present||32 volumes 9||Philip W. Goetz, then Robert McHenry, currently Dale Hoiberg||Restored two-volume index; merged Micropædia and Macropædia articles; slightly longer overall; new versions issued every few years|
1Supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. With preliminary dissertations on the history of the sciences.
2 The 8th to 14th editions included a separate index volume.
4 The 10th edition included a maps volume and a cumulative index volume for the 9th and 10th edition volumes: the new volumes, constituting, in combination with the existing volumes of the 9th ed., the 10th ed. … and also supplying a new, distinctive, and independent library of reference dealing with recent events and developments
5 Vols. 30–32 … the New volumes constituting, in combination with the twenty-nine volumes of the eleventh edition, the twelfth edition
6 This supplement replaced the previous supplement: The three new supplementary volumes constituting, with the volumes of the latest standard edition, the thirteenth edition.
7 This edition was the first to be kept up to date by continual (usually annual) revision.
8 The 15th edition (introduced as "Britannica 3") was published in three parts: a 10-volume Micropædia (which contained short articles and served as an index), a 19-volume Macropædia, plus the Propædia (see text). It was reorganised in 1985 to have 12 and 17 volumes in the Micro- and Macropædia.
9 In 1985, the system was modified by adding a separate two-volume index; the Macropædia articles were further consolidated into fewer, larger ones (for example, the previously separate articles about the 50 U.S. states were all included into the "United States of America" article), with some medium-length articles moved to the Micropædia.
The first CD-ROM edition was issued in 1994. At that time also an online version was offered for paid subscription. In 1999 this was offered for free, and no revised print versions appeared. The experiment was ended in 2001 and a new printed set was issued in 2002.