Sam Duncan, the library director at the Carter, recently asked me to tackle cataloging one of the libraryÊ¼s hidden gems: the thirty-ï¬ve volume EncyclopÃ©die, 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 EncyclopÃ©die, ou Dictionnaire raisonnÃ© des sciences, des arts et des mÃ©tiers, par une sociÃ©tÃ© de gens de lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l'AcadÃ©mie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant Ã la partie mathÃ©matique, par M. d'Alembert de l'AcadÃ©mie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la SociÃ©tÃ© royale de Loners, but it is commonly referred to as the EncyclopÃ©die. The EncyclopÃ©die is truly a marvel to behold, for many reasons. Most impressive is the great condition of the CarterÊ¼s example - all thirty-ï¬ve 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.
The EncyclopÃ©die, as I mentioned above, is comprised of thirty-ï¬ve volumes. These thirty-ï¬ve volumes are broken down into seventeen textual volumes, eleven volumes of plates, four supplemental volumes, two index volumes, and a ï¬nal supplemental volume of plates. These volumes, all told, hold seventy-ï¬ve 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 EncyclopÃ©die to be signiï¬cant because it was one of the best representations of the ideas and rhetoric of the enlightenment, as well as being the ï¬rst general encyclopedia to pay special attention to the mechanical arts. The enlightenment ideas are well represented in the classiï¬cation of human knowledge presented in the EncyclopÃ©dieÊ¼s 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 CarterÊ¼s EncyclopÃ©die represents this, as the later volumes state that they were published in Amsterdam. Scholars also highlight that the publication of the EncyclopÃ©die 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 “EncyclopÃ©die,” stating that the purpose of the publication was “to change the way people think.” This publication truly had a signiï¬cant impact on the development of modern Western Civilization.
The classiï¬cation scheme I mentioned above is of speciï¬c 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 EncyclopÃ©die was inspired by Francis BaconÊ¼s Advancement of Knowledge, and classiï¬ed all knowledge into three major categories: memory, reason, and imagination. Of course, todayÊ¼s schemes take the form of Library of Congress Classiï¬cation Numbers, and Dewey Decimal Classiï¬cation 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-ï¬les/the-feel-of-steel)
For me, cataloging the EncyclopÃ©die represents many of the reasons I chose librarianship as a career. The technical work and research that precedes the ï¬nal catalog record is both challenging and fascinating. Having an opportunity to interact with, and deepen my appreciation for signiï¬cant 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 EncyclopÃ©die for yourself, as it is truly a beautiful and awesome thing to behold.
Source for information: Wikipedia entries for the EncyclopÃ©die, Francis Bacon, and Denis Diderot.
Guest blogger: Jason Dean, Library Volunteer