Encyclopedia Britannica : A Comprehensive Guide

Encyclopedia Britannica

Encyclopedia Britannica is one of the most renowned and longstanding reference works in the English language. Established in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland, it has grown to become a symbol of authoritative information and scholarly precision. Over the centuries, it has adapted to various media, from printed volumes to digital formats, making it a versatile and enduring source of knowledge.

What is an Encyclopedia?

An encyclopedia is a comprehensive reference work that provides summaries of information from all branches of knowledge or from a particular field or discipline. Encyclopedias are typically organized alphabetically or thematically and are designed to provide concise, accurate, and up-to-date information to readers. They serve as a valuable resource for students, researchers, and general readers seeking to gain a broad understanding of various topics.

Nature of Information Given by Encyclopedia Britannica

Encyclopedia Britannica is known for its thorough and meticulously researched entries. The information provided is written by experts in their respective fields, ensuring a high level of accuracy and credibility. The content covers a wide range of subjects, including history, science, art, culture, geography, technology, and more. Britannica’s articles are designed to be accessible to both lay readers and scholars, offering detailed explanations without unnecessary complexity.

Edition and Editor-wise History of Encyclopedia Britannica

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First Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1768-1771)

The Encyclopedia Britannica has been published since 1768, when its first edition began to appear in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Encyclopedia Britannica; or, A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences was conceived by two printers, Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar, and edited chiefly by the printer and antiquary William Smellie. It was printed and published in Edinburgh. Initial pieces of the work began to appear in December 1768, and the whole work was completed in 1771 in three volumes containing 2,391 pages, four folded leaves of unnumbered tables, and 160 copperplates engraved by Bell.

It contained articles on a wide range of subjects, including the natural sciences, philosophy, and history. The work was an immediate success and laid the foundation for future editions. The work’s merit and novelty consisted, on the one hand, in its consolidation of important subjects into lengthy, comprehensive treatises and, on the other, in facilitating reference by the inclusion of many shorter, dictionary- type articles on technical terms and other subjects. History and biographies were not included in this first edition.

Second Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1777-1784)

The second edition was a much more ambitious work in length and scope, its 10 volumes totaling 8,595 pages reflecting the growing breadth of knowledge and appearing in parts from 1777 to 1784. There were more treatises than had appeared in the first edition and many new articles, as well as previous articles much expanded. It included significant contributions from various scholars and further established Britannica as a leading reference work. The scope of the second edition was enlarged beyond that of a “dictionary of arts and sciences” by the inclusion of biographical articles and the expansion of geographic articles to include history. The editor was James Tytler (c. 1747-1804).

Third edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1788-1797)

The third edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was even bigger. It came out in parts and ended up as 18 volumes with a total of 14,579 pages, published between 1788 and 1797. It was edited by Macfarquhar until he passed away in 1793, after which George Gleig, a Scottish Episcopalian clergyman, took over and finished the work. When the edition was done, Bell bought out the ownership shares from Macfarquhar’s heirs. In 1801, Gleig edited a two-volume supplement that was printed for Thomas Bonar, Bell’s son-in-law. The lively and engaging writing style of the third edition and its supplement was both informative and enjoyable to read, which helped to build Encyclopedia Britannica’s strong and lasting reputation.

The fourth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1801-1809)

The fourth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was published between 1801 and 1809 and was bound in 20 volumes totaling 16,033 pages, with a final publication date of 1810. This edition was mainly a revised reprint of the third edition but included two additional volumes. These extra volumes featured new and expanded articles, updated history pages, and more biographical entries.

James Millar, an Edinburgh physician and natural scientist, was the editor of the fourth edition. He worked hard to fix the gaps and issues left by the third edition, which were due to the death of its editor, Macfarquhar, before he could complete his work. This careful revision and expansion made the fourth edition an even more comprehensive and reliable source of knowledge. The fourth edition laid the groundwork for future improvements in the fifth and sixth editions, as well as supplements that continued to build on the encyclopedic foundation set by the third edition.

The fifth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1815 to 1824)

The fifth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, edited by Bonar and Millar, was essentially a corrected reprint of the fourth edition. It didn’t introduce major changes but made necessary corrections and updates. Similarly, the sixth edition, edited by Charles Maclaren, was a reprint of the fifth edition with some articles brought up to date.


Despite the relatively minor updates in the fifth and sixth editions, the supplement to these editions was of great significance. This six-volume supplement, published in half-volumes from 1815 to 1824, was edited by Macvey Napier, who later became the editor of the Edinburgh Review. Unlike previous editions, the supplement featured original signed contributions rather than digests of existing publications.


This approach marked a significant. The principal innovation of the supplement was that, instead of the editor merely compiling digests of the best available independent publications and using these as the treatises, almost all the articles were original signed contributions. Many of them were written by the most distinguished British scholars of the day, as well as some French scholars. Meanwhile, Archibald Constable, an enterprising Edinburgh publisher, had bought the copyright of Britannica from Bell’s and Bonar’s heirs.

The seventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1830-1842)

The seventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was published in parts between 1830 and 1842. After Constable’s firm went bankrupt in 1826 and Constable himself died the next year, Adam Black, another publisher from Edinburgh, bought the Encyclopedia Britannica. Napier edited this edition for Black.

The seventh edition consisted of 21 volumes, totaling 17,101 pages and featuring 506 plates. It was a revision of previous editions, including the supplement and a number of newly commissioned articles. One notable innovation in this edition was the inclusion of an extra volume that served as a general index. This useful feature became a standard in subsequent editions, helping readers navigate the extensive content more easily.

The eighth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1852-1860)

The eighth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was published between 1852 and 1860. It consisted of 21 volumes plus an additional index volume, totaling 17,957 pages and featuring 402 plates. This edition was edited by Thomas Stewart Traill, a professor of medical jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh, following the death of the previous editor, Napier.

While the eighth edition retained some articles from older editions, it underwent a thorough revision. Traill and his team made significant updates and improvements to ensure that the content was current and accurate. This extensive revision process helped maintain the encyclopedia’s reputation as a reliable and authoritative source of information.

The Ninth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1875-1889)

The ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is regarded as one of its greatest editions. It consisted of 24 volumes and an index volume, published sequentially between 1875 and 1889. The main editor was T.S. Baynes, a professor of logic, metaphysics, and English literature at St. Andrews, and a noted Shakespearean scholar. Baynes planned the edition and oversaw its production until his death in 1887. From 1881, he worked alongside William Robertson Smith, a Semitic scholar, who became the joint editor.


This edition, often called the “scholars’ encyclopedia,” was notable for its progressive and informed perspectives on the scientific and religious debates of the time, making it a controversial work. It featured contributions from about 1,100 experts, including more than 70 American scholars and around 60 scholars from various European countries.


The ninth edition marked a significant shift in ownership for Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1901, the American publisher Horace E. Hooper, together with another publisher, Walter M. Jackson, bought the rights from Adam and Charles Black. This purchase established permanent American ownership of the encyclopedia, ensuring its continued development and adaptation in the United States.

The 10th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1902-1903)

The 10th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was published between 1902 and 1903, under the sponsorship of The Times of London. This edition added 11 supplementary volumes to the existing nine volumes of the ninth edition. These new volumes updated much of the content, with a particular focus on history.


The editors of the 10th edition were Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, Hugh Chisholm, Arthur T. Hadley, and Franklin H. Hooper, the brother of Horace Hooper. Their efforts ensured that the Encyclopedia Britannica continued to provide comprehensive and up-to-date information for its readers.

The famed 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-1911)

The famed 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was published in 29 volumes by the Cambridge University Press between 1910 and 1911. This edition was notable for the editorial disputes and a lawsuit between Jackson and Horace Hooper, which led The Times to cancel its contract in 1909. Despite these challenges, the 11th edition was completed under the direction of Franklin Hooper at the New York editorial office and Hugh Chisholm at the London office, where most of the work was done.


One of the significant changes in the 11th edition was the shift from long, comprehensive treatises to more specific and detailed articles. This approach resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of articles—40,000 compared to the 17,000 articles in the 9th edition—though the total amount of text did not increase significantly. The 11th edition incorporated and revised many articles from the 9th and 10th editions and included numerous new entries and expanded sections, particularly in historical content.


The prose of the 11th edition was rich and leisurely, representing the peak of literary style in Britannica’s history. In 1920, Encyclopedia Britannica was purchased by the Chicago mail-order company Sears, Roebuck, and Company, with Horace Hooper continuing as its publisher until he died in 1922.

12th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1922, the 12th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was created by adding three supplementary volumes to the existing 29 volumes of the 11th edition. These new volumes were prepared under the editorial direction of Hugh Chisholm in London and Franklin Hooper in New York City. This edition aimed to update and expand the content of the 11th edition, ensuring that the encyclopedia remained a relevant and comprehensive source of information.

13th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1923-1928)

In 1926, the 13th edition was published, consisting of three entirely new supplementary volumes. These were edited by Franklin Hooper in New York City and J.L. Garvin in London. This edition continued the trend of updating and enriching the content to reflect new developments and knowledge.


During the period between 1923 and 1928, the ownership of Encyclopedia Britannica experienced significant changes. Initially owned by the Sears, and Roebuck company, the ownership shifted to Franklin Hooper’s widow and his brother-in-law, William J. Cox. This transition marked a new era in the management and direction of the encyclopedia.


These editions, with their supplementary volumes and updated content, played a crucial role in maintaining Encyclopedia Britannica’s status as a leading reference work, ensuring that it remained a reliable and authoritative source of information through the early 20th century.

The 14th and 15th editions of Encyclopedia Britannica

The 14th and 15th editions of Encyclopedia Britannica represent pivotal moments in its history. From the comprehensive update of the 11th edition to the ambitious Britannica 3, each edition aimed to provide readers with authoritative and up-to-date knowledge. Through continuous revisions and innovations, Britannica has maintained its reputation as a trusted source of information, adapting to meet the evolving needs of readers in the modern age.


14th Edition (1929)

In 1928, Sears, Roebuck acquired Encyclopedia Britannica and tasked the team with updating the outdated 11th edition. This effort was led by editors Garvin in London and Franklin Hooper in New York City, spanning from 1926 to 1929. The goal was to modernize the content by adding new articles on scientific and other subjects while retaining essential material from the 11th edition, albeit in a more concise form. Over 3,500 authors worldwide contributed to this edition.


The result was a set of 24 volumes, which included an index and a complete atlas, published in 1929. This edition marked a significant step forward in making Britannica more accessible and relevant to contemporary readers.


15th Edition (1974 – Britannica 3)

Under the leadership of William Benton, Encyclopedia Britannica underwent a transformative update. Beginning in 1952 with the publication of the Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer J. Adler, Britannica expanded its intellectual reach. In 1974, the 15th edition, also known as Britannica 3, was released. This edition was a monumental effort, involving a vast editorial team and costing $32 million, making it the largest private investment in publishing history at that time.


The 15th edition consisted of 28 volumes divided into three parts:

Micropædia (Ready Reference): Concise articles for quick reference.

Macropædia (Knowledge in Depth): In-depth articles exploring various subjects.

Propædia (Outline of Knowledge): A guide to the organization and structure of knowledge.


More than 4,000 contributors from over 100 countries provided a global perspective, enriching the content with diverse viewpoints. Warren E. Preece served as the general editor, with Philip W. Goetz as the executive editor.

Encyclopedia Britannica in Digital Era (1994-present)

In 1994, Encyclopedia Britannica made a significant leap into the digital age with the release of its first CD-ROM version. This marked a major transition from traditional printed volumes to a more accessible and interactive format. By 1999, Britannica further expanded its digital presence with the launch of an online version, greatly broadening its reach to a global audience.

The move to digital formats enabled Britannica to offer continuous updates, ensuring that the information remained current and relevant. It also allowed for the integration of multimedia elements such as videos, animations, and interactive maps, enhancing the user experience and making learning more engaging.

This shift to digital not only modernized Britannica but also made it more convenient for users to access a vast repository of knowledge anytime and anywhere with an internet connection. The digital era has since become integral to Britannica’s mission of providing reliable and comprehensive information to students, scholars, and curious minds around the world.

How to Cite Encyclopedia Britannica?

Encyclopedia Britannica holds significant value in contemporary education and research despite the proliferation of digital resources and search engines.

Significant points of Encyclopedia Britannica for cite.


Reliability and Authority: Britannica is renowned for its accuracy and authoritative content. Articles are written and reviewed by experts in their fields, ensuring reliable information that can be cited with confidence in academic papers and research. Encyclopedia Britannica has historically enlisted contributions from numerous world-class writers, scholars, and experts in various fields. Some notable contributors include:

Alexander Graham Bell, Marie, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Martha Nussbaum, Jane Goodall, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Mead and Toni Morrison. These individuals, among many others, have enriched Encyclopedia Britannica with their expertise, ensuring its status as a trusted and authoritative source of knowledge across diverse disciplines.


Comprehensive Coverage: It provides comprehensive coverage across a wide range of subjects, including history, science, literature, arts, and more. This breadth allows researchers to find introductory information on various topics, making it a valuable starting point for deeper investigations.


Accessible Format: While traditionally known for its print editions, Britannica has adapted to digital formats, making it accessible anytime, anywhere. Its online version includes multimedia elements, current updates, and links to external resources, enhancing its utility in research and education.


Credible Source for Background Information: In academic writing, Britannica serves as a trusted source for background information and overviews. It helps establish context and understanding before delving into more specialized and scholarly sources.


Accepted Citation Standards: Britannica provides clear guidelines on how to cite its articles in various citation styles such as APA, MLA, and Chicago. This consistency in citation format simplifies the process for researchers and students integrating Britannica into their academic work.


Educational Support: Britannica offers tailored versions like Britannica Kids and Junior Encyclopedia, which cater to younger audiences. These resources are widely used in schools to introduce students to reliable information and foster critical thinking skills.


Peer-Reviewed Reputation: Although not a peer-reviewed journal, Britannica’s editorial process ensures high-quality content reviewed by subject experts. This process contributes to its reputation as a trusted reference work in both educational and professional settings.


Continued Relevance: Despite the availability of free online sources, Britannica remains relevant due to its editorial rigor, historical reputation, and commitment to accuracy. It continues to be a preferred resource for educators, librarians, and researchers seeking dependable information.


Encyclopedia Britannica maintains its cited value in contemporary education and research by providing reliable, comprehensive, and accessible information across diverse subject areas. Its adaptation to digital platforms ensures its continued relevance and usefulness in academic pursuits.


Citing Encyclopedia Britannica

Citing Encyclopedia Britannica varies depending on the format (print or online) and the citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Here are examples of different styles:



APA (7th Edition)

  • For an online article: Encyclopedia Britannica. (Year). Title of the article. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from URL
  • For a print article: Encyclopedia Britannica. (Year). Title of the article. In Title of the Encyclopedia (Edition, Vol. Number, pp. pages). Publisher.

MLA (9th Edition)

  • For an online article: “Title of the Article.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Year, URL.
  • For a print article: “Title of the Article.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Edition, Vol. Number, Publisher, Year, pages.

Chicago (17th Edition)

  • For an online article: “Title of the Article.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified Month Day, Year. URL.
  • For a print article: “Title of the Article.” In Title of the Encyclopedia, Edition, Vol. Number, pages. Publisher, Year.

Is Encyclopedia Britannica a Scholarly Source?

Encyclopedia Britannica is often considered a reliable and authoritative source, but it is not typically classified as a scholarly source. Scholarly sources are usually peer-reviewed journal articles or academic books that present original research or in-depth analysis. Britannica, on the other hand, provides summaries of existing knowledge written by experts. While it is highly credible and useful for background information, it may not meet the criteria for scholarly sources required in academic research.

What Type of Source is Encyclopedia Britannica?

Encyclopedia Britannica is a tertiary source, meaning it compiles and summarizes information from primary and secondary sources. It provides overviews and background information on a wide range of topics, making it an excellent starting point for research. Tertiary sources like Britannica are valuable for gaining a broad understanding of a subject before delving into more specialized primary or secondary sources.

Is Encyclopedia Britannica Reliable?

The reliability of Encyclopedia Britannica stems from its rigorous editorial standards and the expertise of its contributors. Each article is written or reviewed by specialists in the relevant field, ensuring the accuracy and credibility of the information. Britannica also undergoes regular updates to incorporate new findings and correct any errors. While no source is infallible, Britannica’s long-standing reputation and meticulous editorial process make it a trusted reference work.

Britannica Junior Encyclopedia

The Britannica Junior Encyclopedia is designed for younger readers, providing concise and engaging articles on a wide range of topics. It serves as an excellent resource for children in elementary and middle school, helping them develop research skills and a curiosity about the world. The Junior Encyclopedia includes colorful illustrations, maps, and diagrams to enhance the learning experience and make complex topics more accessible.


Encyclopedia Britannica stands as a monumental work in the history of reference materials. From its inception in the 18th century to its digital presence today, it has consistently provided reliable and authoritative information to readers around the world. Whether accessed in print or online, Britannica remains a valuable resource for anyone seeking to broaden their knowledge and understanding of a wide array of subjects. Its specialized versions, such as Britannica Kids and the Junior Encyclopedia, further extend its reach, ensuring that learners of all ages can benefit from its wealth of information.


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