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Democratising knowledge: Chambers's Encyclopaedia

Dr Rose Roberto successfully defended her thesis in November 2018 after 4 years as a PhD student at the University of Reading and co-supervised by National Museums Scotland.

Last updated: 3 February 2022

About the research

Democratising Knowledge refers to two ambitions fundamental to the Chambers company. First, it refers to their use of illustrations to convey complex information visually, and in a succinct way, to people with varying degrees of literacy. Secondly, it refers to the W. & R. Chambers’s business philosophy of producing affordable, accessible publications. 

During the project Rose investigated the Chambers’ Illustrated encyclopaedia and produced a number of outputs.

Doctoral research project details

Project title

Democratising Knowledge: Chambers' Illustrated Encyclopedia 1860-1892, Science & Technology


Dr Rose Roberto

Project active

2014 - 2018


AHRC Scottish Cultural Heritage Consortium (SCHC) – Collaborative Doctoral Partnership

University of Reading Supervisor

Dr Rob Banham - School of Arts & Communication Design

National Museums Scotland Supervisor

Alison Taubman - Department of Science & Technology 

Research theme

Scotland's Material Heritage

Roberto, R. “Illustrating Animals and Visualising Natural History in Chambers’s Encyclopædias” IN Comforting Creatures. Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 88 (automne) 2018.

Roberto, R. “The evolution of image making industries and the mid- to late-Victorian press” IN Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Volume 2: Expansion and Evolution, 1800-1900, Ed. Finkelstein, D. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2020.

Roberto, R. "(Re)Assembling Reference Books and Recycling Images: The Wood Engravings of the W. & R. Chambers Firm" IN Circulation and Control: Artistic Culture and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century. Eds. Slauter, W. and Delamaire S. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. October 2021.

Roberto, R. "Nineteenth-century women writers who contributed to Chambers’s Encyclopaedia" IN Archer- Parré, C., Hinks, J, and Moog, C. Eds. Women in Print: production, distribution and consumption, Volume 2. Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd. October 2022

Roberto, R. “Reflections on 19th-century printing processes based on W. & R. Chambers woodblocks and electrotype plates” IN Printing Things: Blocks, Plates, and Stones 1400-1900: British Academy Proceedings, Oxford University Press. In press.


W. & R. Chambers Collection

Discover how Scottish publishers W. & R. Chambers pioneered the use of images as learning tools in their encyclopaedias, and how these pictures changed with the times as illustration styles and printing techniques evolved and world views changed.

Find out more

Explore the woodblock collection

You can explore the woodblocks in more detail in our collections search.

See the woodblocks

Supported by

With thanks to

Many thanks go to the Design History Society, the British Society for the History of Science, the British Association for Victorian Studies and the Catherine Mackichan Trust for travel assistance for PhD student, Rose Roberto. Many thanks to the National Library of Scotland for extensive access to the Chambers papers on deposit with them, and to Dr Sondra Miley Cooney for helping find further material on J. R. Pairman.

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