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Trent English Professor Works on the Encyclopedia Britannica-the Wikipedia of Its Day

November 13, 2017

Dr. Stephen Brown becomes permanent research affiliate with the Centre for the History of the Book

Dr. Stephen Brown, English Professor smiling to camera while wearing a blue shirt and a green cap

Dr. Stephen Brown, a faculty member in the English Literature department at Trent, recently spent his sabbatical as a visiting research fellow with the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, where he became part of some major scholarly projects to unfold over the next few years, including research into the 18th-century court case that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

“I was attracted to book history because of my own bibliomania as a collector,” Professor Brown explains. He has been conducting research in Edinburgh for over thirty years. As a result of the sabbatical, Prof. Brown has now joined the Centre for the History of the Book as a permanent research affiliate.

The University of Edinburgh is currently funding the digitization of the Scottish Court of Session papers. Prof. Brown has been working with papers from the late 18th century, especially those related to criminal cases.

While on sabbatical, Prof. Brown was approached to be one of five collaborators for a three-year international project exploring the history of book advertising in Britain and Japan. Japanese book production and newspaper/advertising conventions were heavily influenced by relationships with major British publishers.

Prof. Brown has also worked for many years on the publication history of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and is a leading scholar in this area. With the encyclopedia’s 250th anniversary approaching, he has been consulted by the Globe & Mail, the National Library of Scotland, the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, and by the Britannica itself, for various articles, publication histories and exhibitions. Though the Britannica is now digital, some print copies are considered highly collectable and early editions are sought for their rare book value.

“The Britannica was the Wikipedia of its day, attacked by the universities and the medical and other professions for breaching their authority, until it slowly asserted itself and became the site for authority,” says Prof. Brown.

Some scenes from the popular Outlander TV series were filmed in the meeting room and library of the Writers to the Signet, where Dr. Brown has worked. “Edinburgh’s medieval and neo-classical architecture and the city’s setting between a river and a number of volcanic stumps, with a functioning military castle and a royal palace at its heart,” he says, “make it perhaps the most stunning location for scholarly life anywhere in the world.”