"[W. & R. Chambers's] series begin with a three-halfpenny infant primer, and goes onwards through a whole library of grammars, dictionaries, histories, scientific and all primary class books, and cheap editions of standard foreign and classical authors, til it culminates in a popular Encyclopaedia in ten thick volumes."
– Henry Curwen, A History of Booksellers: The old and the new, 1873
Encyclopaedias are a snapshot of a particular time, place and world view. Like museums, they have been curated and the collections within both reflect evidence of particular narratives of history, science and culture. Their construction and presentation of information, with the aim of increasing access to universal as well as useful knowledge, is not only intriguing, but provides a key to understanding the flow of information in society. This study considers the concept of a democratisation of knowledge made explicit in the Encyclopaedia's sub-title: 'a Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People', shortened to 'A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge' by the second edition.
In order to better understand the choices made by W. & R. Chambers in determining their content, both text and visual, their encyclopaedias were compared to others of a similar date with similar aims: the Penny Cyclopaedia (1828-1843), the English Cyclopaedia (1854-1862); the eighth and ninth editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1853-1860 and 1875-1889), all published in the UK, and Johnson’s Universal Cyclopaedia (1876), published in the United States. This helps in drawing conclusions on the choice, production and position of images in relation to text as a means of increasing the accessibility of the subject-matter.