Stopping at a yard sale a few years back, I picked up a set of The Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition, produced during the year 1910. Fascinated by the idea of owning a cross section of the trunk of the tree of knowledge just prior to the First World War, when the publication was at a crossroads with its transition from being British to becoming American, I bought the 29 volumes for $20. As an extra bonus, it came with the Britannica Year-Book from 1913, published the year after the sinking of the Titanic. Soon after, I realized that there was an additional cost beyond the $20, in the form of storage real estate. The four feet of book shelf space that it occupied until the day it got sold for a small profit, was a luxury I could not afford. Libraries and collectors of books of the genre of “Education/Reference” are probably the only owners of bulky sets of encyclopedias these days. Encyclopedic knowledge has moved to more accessible electronic media on the internet with older important editions such as the Britannica 11th edition now in the public domain being accessible to modern scholars and other interested parties of cultural artifacts.
Interest in old encyclopedias re-surfaced last month when a long-lost volume of the Yongle Encyclopedia of 16th-century China, representing part of the world’s largest known general encyclopedia at its time, was found in California. The complete Ming dynasty-era book containing 10,095 volumes and totaling some 370 million hand-transcribed characters is believed to be scattered across various locations throughout the world. The volume owner, the California-based Huntington Library, received the gift in 1968 from the American daughter of Joseph Whiting, a Presbyterian missionary who once lived in Beijing. Falling victim to the limited shelf space availability at the library’s storage facility, the volume remained un-accounted for in the basement for 46 years.
Old encyclopedias are attracting collectors primarily for two reasons: scarcity and information. As is the case with all rare books and other collectibles, the more scarce an edition is, the more likely it is to have a bigger spread between supply and demand, and thus the higher the monetary value. Soon after it was announced by the 244-year-old publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica, that the 2010 edition consisting of 32 volumes and a total production of 12,000 was going to be the last, any remaining copies quickly sold out. It is, after all, an historically important publication reaching its end-of-life landmark. Collectors are also attracted by the insight into the social values and views of the society during the time of publication. Often times they describe ways of life and life forms that no longer exist, such as the now-extinct, blood-thirsty, largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times, the thylacine. Politically incorrect, older content is viewed today as racist or sexist. Britannica’s eleventh edition, for example, characterizes the Ku Klux Klan as protectors of the white race with mission to “control the negro” and restore order to the American South after the impact of the American Civil War.
The majority of encyclopedias fall into the category of “mass-produced,” taking up more shelf space than most collectors have to spare. Many multi-volume collections present storage and preservation challenges. An incomplete set or a set containing a damaged volume is a cause for a significant reduction in value. The more modern the set, the bigger the penalty incurred. For example, Luigi Serafini’s original 2-volume set of Codex Seraphinianus that sells for more than $5,000, currently has broken sets of either volume 1 or volume 2 offered for sale for less than$1,000 with no buyer interest. Old encyclopedias are less impacted by such fallbacks due to the atomic nature of the information they contain, but are nevertheless more vulnerable due to the size and the number of volumes. It is not difficult then to see how the Yongle volume could have been misplaced back in 1968 when it was still considered the world’s largest encyclopedia. It only took Wikipedia six centuries to break that record and perfect the art of collective knowledge scattered across the world.