All the World’s Knowledge

Spines of the first American encyclopedia, published by Thomas Dobson (1798) / AE5 .E342 1798 v.1-18 c.2

Spines of the first American encyclopedia, published by Thomas Dobson (1798) / AE5 .E342 1798 v.1-18 c.2

The month of February ended with an opening for the new RBC exhibition The Encyclopedic Impulse. Last Wednesday evening, over one hundred people attended a reception and viewing and a related lecture that followed.

This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of French philosopher Denis Diderot, co-editor and visionary of the French Encyclopédie. To commemorate the occasion, the RBC decided to display multiple volumes of that work, but as with any encyclopedic endeavor, the project expanded.

Louse seen through a microscope as rendered in a plate volume of the Encyclopédie (1768) / AE25 .E53 Plates v.6

Louse seen through a microscope as rendered in a plate volume of the Encyclopédie (1768) / AE25 .E53 Plates v.6

The exhibition further illuminates the encyclopedia concept by including other encyclopedias and reference works, as well as significant writings on knowledge. Pliny the Elder, Francis Bacon, Athanasius Kircher, Abraham Ortelius, H. G. Wells, and Jorge Luis Borges are all invoked in the exploration of the human impulse to collect and organize knowledge in a single bibliographic entity.

B765_L83_L57_1953-llull_ed2

Ladder of ascent and combinatory wheel in Llull, Libro del ascenso, y descenso del entendimiento (1753) / B765.L83 L57 1753

To celebrate the exhibition, Ken Hillis, professor of media and technology studies, delivered a lecture entitled “From Alexandria to Google: The Mythic Quest for Universal Libraries.” He organized his talk around four ideas/entities: the Tower of Babel; the Library at Alexandria; the art of knowing of medieval mystic Ramón Llull; and H. G. Wells’ conception of a “World Brain.”  Co-author of the recent book Google and the Culture of Search (2012), Prof. Hillis ended with a discussion of Google and a reflection on the ways in which its knowledge project coincides with and differs from previous quests.

It was a thought-provoking talk, in sympathy with the Rare Book Collection exhibition, and one entirely appropriate to a university library. The show is up in Wilson Library’s Melba Remig Saltarelli exhibit room through May 26, 2013.

 

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