Skip to main content

Trent English Professor Launches 250th Anniversary Celebrations of Encyclopaedia Britannica

January 7, 2019

Dr. Stephen Brown invited to share enterprising history of infamous publication and modern-day lessons at National Library of Scotland

First Encyclopaedia Britannica

It’s a fact. The Encyclopaedia Britannica celebrated its 250th anniversary in December 2018 in its hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Putting Trent on the international stage

In honour of the anniversary, The National Library of Scotland invited Dr. Stephen Brown, a professor in the English Literature department at Trent, to launch a yearlong celebration and an international fundraising initiative for the library.

His lecture, “Why the First Encyclopaedia Britannica Never Should Have Succeeded,” examined the publication’s evolution from its patch-work roots under editor William Smellie, to the trustworthy status that Encyclopedia Britannica enjoys today.

As a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and an affiliate of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Brown was accompanied by international media interviews and the prized opportunity to connect with fellow scholars.

“I am able to converse and share ideas with the world’s leading experts in book history and rare book collecting,” recalls Prof. Brown. “This puts Trent on the international stage and makes us part of an exclusive community comprising the world’s leading research institutions. We punch above our weight in these circles.”

Capitalism generates knowledge

Aided by funding through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Prof. Brown’s work corrected many myths and mistakes surrounding Britannica’s first edition, which was rife with plagiarism, misinformation and scandalous drawings. He was also the first to research and identify how it was compiled, advertised, printed and distributed.

“The Britannica is the first example of a major literary work that succeeded because of its marketing, not because of its intrinsic value,” states Prof. Brown. “That fascinates me. Capitalism generates knowledge.  That interests me.”

According to Prof. Brown, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was a major achievement of the first media revolution which emphasized mass literacy and democratization of knowledge. His courses at Trent compare and examine today’s media revolution that challenges pre-established issues of intellectual property and copyright.

“The study of material culture and its history, including media studies, enriches our understanding of the ways in which freedom of the press is fundamental to preservation and evolution of principles of democracy and social justice. That is at the core of the mission of Humanities at Trent.”

The worn pages of 18th-century Scotland enters the digital age

Prof. Brown’s research stemmed from his earlier work editing manuscript papers of William Smellie for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Interestingly, Mr. Smellie was a founding member. Prof. Brown is now writing Mr. Smellie’s literary biography.

Prof. Brown’s lecture will be posted on the National Library of Scotland website.

Find other stories about: English