Relocating the owl of wisdom: Encyclopaedias in a life-historical perspective

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Encyclopaedias are artefacts that both define and are defined by the culture in which they are produced and used. Encyclopaedias mirror the time of their creation, at the same time as understanding and use of encyclopaedias is tied to both time and space. From the 19th century until the present day encyclopaedias have changed from exclusive and costly Collections of books kept mainly in libraries and other institutions, into affordable collections occupying a natural place in many homes and then nowadays, into free online services available almost everywhere and at any time. Thus, both the significance ascribed to encyclopaedias and the place assigned to them has changed over time. Nevertheless they have never failed to exert an important cultural influence. Yet interestingly, the question of how encyclopaedias are being experienced in everyday life has remained unexplored. Earlier studies on encyclopaedias have mainly focused on print encyclopaedias as historical artefacts and studied their publishing in a sociohistorical context (e.g. Collison, 1964; Yeo, 2001). Despite apparent methodological difficulties, some attempts have also been made to discuss their use in the past (Blair, 2010). Research on today’s dominant encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, differs from past research on encyclopaedias (e.g. Mesgari et al., 2015), both regarding the vast number of studies done and with regard to the fact that more humanities-oriented approaches which were typically adopted by previous research on encyclopaedias are underrepresented.In this article we address the questions of how encyclopaedias as cultural artefacts are used and understood in everyday life and how the media-material changes of encyclopaedias have influenced this use and understanding. To answer these questions we have used a qualitative questionnaire sent to volunteer contributors to the Folk life Archive at Lund University, Sweden.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-34
JournalNordisk tidsskrift for informationsvitenskab- og kulturformidling
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Information Studies


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