Diderot's Encyclopédie

Sam Duncan, the library director at the Carter, recently asked me to tackle cataloging one of the libraryʼs hidden gems: the thirty-five volume Encyclopédie, edited mostly by Denis Diderot. Cataloging a work of this magnitude requires some bibliographical research, and I would like to share with you the interesting knowledge I gained about this wonderful publication. The full title is Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l'Académie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant à la partie mathématique, par M. d'Alembert de l'Académie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la Société royale de Loners, but it is commonly referred to as the Encyclopédie. The Encyclopédie is truly a marvel to behold, for many reasons. Most impressive is the great condition of the Carterʼs example - all thirty-five volumes are in exceptional condition, as they were published between 1751 and 1772, making the most recent volume approximately 238 years old. The illustrations are absolutely stunning in both their quality, as well as their variety. Finally, the impact of the publication itself is fascinating. The Carter library's copy also includes a copy of the original bill of sale, a rarity itself.

Encyclopedie Spines

Bill of Sale

The Encyclopédie, as I mentioned above, is comprised of thirty-five volumes. These thirty-five volumes are broken down into seventeen textual volumes, eleven volumes of plates, four supplemental volumes, two index volumes, and a final supplemental volume of plates. These volumes, all told, hold seventy-five thousand entries, made up of twenty million words, the collaborative work of 150 authors. It is humbling to think of all the effort that went into the production of these large, leather-bound volumes. Many scholars believe the Encyclopédie to be significant because it was one of the best representations of the ideas and rhetoric of the enlightenment, as well as being the first general encyclopedia to pay special attention to the mechanical arts. The enlightenment ideas are well represented in the classification of human knowledge presented in the Encyclopédieʼs table: theology is placed under theology, and the knowledge of God is only a few points above black magic. As one can imagine, this caused a great deal of criticism in 18th century Catholic France, so much so that in 1759, the king suspended the publication rights for the work. However, work continued in secret - and the Carterʼs Encyclopédie represents this, as the later volumes state that they were published in Amsterdam. Scholars also highlight that the publication of the Encyclopédie was a catalyst for the French Revolution, and a prime example of the democratization and popularization of knowledge associated with the enlightenment. Indeed, M. Diderot himself acknowledged this in the entry for “Encyclopédie,” stating that the purpose of the publication was “to change the way people think.” This publication truly had a significant impact on the development of modern Western Civilization.

The classification scheme I mentioned above is of specific interest to me as a librarian. The table represents an earlier effort to classify knowledge - which is one of the specialties of our profession. The scheme of the Encyclopédie was inspired by Francis Baconʼs Advancement of Knowledge, and classified all knowledge into three major categories: memory, reason, and imagination. Of course, todayʼs schemes take the form of Library of Congress Classification Numbers, and Dewey Decimal Classification numbers, and have changed in size, but the purpose remains the same - to classify knowledge, or their containers - books, music, et cetera.

As a library dedicated to the study, scholarship, and preservation of art, the volumes of plates are of particular interest. They cover a wide variety of topics, but focus especially on the mechanical and manual arts--how to create and make “things.” It was these very illustrations that provided the impetus for the Carter to acquire this publication, as they were to support study for a series of planned exhibitions about the mechanical arts. The exhibitions never came to fruition. The engravings themselves are copper engravings, and seem nearly to be as crisp as the day they were printed, nearly three hundred years ago. As a matter of fact, Sam blogged about another publication with beautiful engravings in it, The Feel of Steel. (http://www.cartermuseum.org/blog/the-n-files/the-feel-of-steel)

Encyclopedie Open

For me, cataloging the Encyclopédie represents many of the reasons I chose librarianship as a career. The technical work and research that precedes the final catalog record is both challenging and fascinating. Having an opportunity to interact with, and deepen my appreciation for significant cultural artifacts is exhilarating. Finally, on behalf of the library staff, I would like to invite you to the library reading room to enjoy these wonderful volumes of the Encyclopédie for yourself, as it is truly a beautiful and awesome thing to behold.

Source for information: Wikipedia entries for the Encyclopédie, Francis Bacon, and Denis Diderot.

Guest blogger: Jason Dean, Library Volunteer