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An encyclopedia or encyclopaedia (also spelled encyclopædia, see spelling differences) is a type of reference work or compendium holding a comprehensive summary of information from either all branches of knowledge or a particular branch of knowledge. Encyclopedias are divided into articles or entries, which are usually accessed alphabetically by article name. Encyclopedia entries are longer and more detailed than those in most dictionaries. Generally speaking, unlike dictionary entries which focus on linguistic information about words, encyclopedia articles focus on factual information concerning the subject for which the article is named.
Encyclopedias have existed for around 2,000 years; the oldest still in existence, Naturalis Historia, was written starting in ca. AD 77 by Pliny the Elder and was not fully revised at the time of his death in AD 79. The modern encyclopedia evolved out of dictionaries around the 17th century. Historically, some encyclopedias were contained in one volume, whereas others, such as the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Enciclopedia Italiana (62 volumes, 56,000 pages) or the world's largest, Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana (118 volumes, 105,000 pages), became huge multi-volume works. Some modern encyclopedias, such as , are often electronic and freely available.
The word comes from the Koine Greek ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, transliterated enkyklios paideia, meaning "general education" from enkyklios (ἐγκύκλιος), meaning "circular, recurrent, required regularly, general" and paideia (παιδεία), meaning "education, rearing of a child"; it was reduced to a single word due to an error by copyists of Latin manuscripts. Together, the phrase literally translates as "complete instruction" or "complete knowledge".
- Encyclopedias can be general, containing articles on topics in every field (the English-language Encyclopædia Britannica and German Brockhaus are well-known examples). General encyclopedias often contain guides on how to do a variety of things, as well as embedded dictionaries and gazetteers. There are also encyclopedias that cover a wide variety of topics but from a particular cultural, ethnic, or national perspective, such as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia or Encyclopaedia Judaica.
- Works of encyclopedic scope aim to convey the important accumulated knowledge for their subject domain, such as an encyclopedia of medicine, philosophy, or law. Works vary in the breadth of material and the depth of discussion, depending on the target audience. (For example, the Medical encyclopedia produced by A.D.A.M., Inc. for the U.S. National Institutes of Health.)
- Some systematic method of organization is essential to making an encyclopedia usable as a work of reference. There have historically been two main methods of organizing printed encyclopedias: the alphabetical method (consisting of a number of separate articles, organized in alphabetical order), or organization by hierarchical categories. The former method is today the most common by far, especially for general works. The fluidity of electronic media, however, allows new possibilities for multiple methods of organization of the same content. Further, electronic media offer previously unimaginable capabilities for search, indexing and cross reference. The epigraph from Horace on the title page of the 18th century Encyclopédie suggests the importance of the structure of an encyclopedia: "What grace may be added to commonplace matters by the power of order and connection."
- Encyclopaedia and Hypertext
Internet Accuracy Project – Biographical errors in encyclopedias and almanacs
Encyclopedia – Diderot's article on the Encyclopedia from the original Encyclopédie.
De expetendis et fugiendis rebus – First Renaissance encyclopedia
Errors and inconsistencies in several printed reference books and encyclopedias Archived July 18, 2001, at the Wayback Machine.
Digital encyclopedias put the world at your fingertips – CNET article
Encyclopedias online University of Wisconsin – Stout listing by category
Chambers' Cyclopaedia, 1728, with the 1753 supplement
Encyclopædia Americana, 1851, Francis Lieber ed. (Boston: Mussey & Co.) at the University of Michigan Making of America site
Encyclopædia Britannica, articles and illustrations from 9th ed., 1875–89, and 10th ed., 1902–03.
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