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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.


Genealogists often overlook encyclopedias as potential sources of reliable, accurate information. Encyclopedias provide a convenient source for answers to specific questions. They are also useful for background information on new areas of study. That they can be found in every library and in many homes ensures their accessibility to researchers. Encyclopedias are also available in CD-ROM format and through online services, making them even more accessible.

When consulting an encyclopedia, pay close attention to the scope or purpose of the work. Does the introduction clearly define the emphasis and to whom the work is directed? These qualifications are especially important when using a subject encyclopedia. Is the encyclopedia authoritative? Is it up to date, accurate, and relatively objective? Are the contributors scholars in their fields and are their qualifications clearly stated? Are the articles objective and fair? Have both sides of an issue been presented or have controversial issues been ignored?

Many encyclopedias are published in multi-volume sets. There are two basic types: general encyclopedias and subject encyclopedias. The more familiar type is the general encyclopedia published for a specific age group or audience. This type includes, for example, the Encyclopedia Americana for adults and the World Book Encyclopedia for children and young adults. These sets contain information on almost every conceivable subject. Subject encyclopedias, on the other hand, provide in-depth information on one subject. The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1993) is a subject encyclopedia.

General Encyclopedias

For genealogists, the general encyclopedia can provide a quick way to find information about countries and states pertinent to a family’s migrational history, for example. Excellent maps and historical information offer the researcher sufficient background information to provide an overview and serve as a springboard for additional research. Most encyclopedic articles end with bibliographic references to other articles within the encyclopedia or to other books on the subject.

Three firms produce 75 percent of all general print encyclopedias published in North America. They are Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., which produces the Encyclopædia Britannica, the largest and most prestigious encyclopedia in the English language, Children’s Britannica, and others; Grolier Inc. publishes Encyclopedia Americana, the first multi-volume encyclopedia of any significance published in North America (1829), The New Book of Knowledge, Academic American Encyclopedia, and others; and World Book Inc., which publishes World Book Encyclopedia, the best-selling encyclopedia in North America, and Childcraft: The How and Why Library (Kister 1994, 1011).

The largest, best known, and most prestigious general encyclopedia in the English language is the Encyclopædia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 17681973). In publication since 1768, the Britannica is best known for its scholarly coverage, its well-balanced articles, and excellent bibliographies. It serves the serious student and educated adult researcher and is found in most libraries.

The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was first published in 1974 under the name The New Encyclopædia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica). This edition presents a radical change in arrangement from previous editions. It is divided into three interrelated parts: the Propædia, Outline of Knowledge, which serves as a topical guide to the contents of the encyclopedia; the Micropædia, Ready Reference, twelve volumes of short articles on specific persons, places, things, and ideas arranged in alphabetical order; and the Macropædia, Knowledge in Depth, seventeen volumes of longer, more-substantial articles. Both the Micropædia and Macropædia sections contain many illustrations and maps. A comparison can be drawn between the treatment of the subject heraldry in the Micropædia and Macropædia texts. The Macropædia article on heraldry is seventeen pages in length and includes an extensive bibliography. In contrast, the Micropædia article is only two columns long with a reference to the more extensive discussion in the Macropædia. A two-volume comprehensive index to the complete, thirty-volume New Encyclopedia Britannica guides the user to much information that would otherwise be difficult to find.

The thirty-volume Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, Conn.: Grolier, 1829) is a nationally recognized encyclopedia published since the early part of the nineteenth century. It is written for adults and older students with good reading skills. Its articles are strong in all aspects of North American life, including history, geography, and biography. It unquestionably has a greater emphasis on North America than any of the other general encyclopedias. The Americana is particularly useful for hard-to-find, little-known information about the United States. For example, a reference to the city of Ada identifies it as being located in southeastern Oklahoma, eighty-five miles southeast of Oklahoma City. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, Ada was settled in 1889 and named for Ada Reed, the daughter of its first postmaster.

Other good general encyclopedias exist. They include the twenty-four-volume Collier’s Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan Educational Co., 1949); the twenty-one-volume Academic American Encyclopedia (Princeton, N.J.: Grolier, 1980); and the twenty-two-volume World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: World Book, annual). All three present accurate, readable, up-to-date articles easily read by students and adult researchers.

Yearbooks are published annually by most publishers of encyclopedias. Sometimes called annuals, these yearbooks present summaries of the previous year’s major events. Their alphabetical arrangement and scope offer easy access to current biographies, obituaries, chronologies of events, and current statistics for answers to specific questions.

Other Types of Encyclopedias

One-volume encyclopedias answer the need for quick, accurate data. Usually, these encyclopedias are not found with the multi-volume sets on the library shelves, but are kept near the reference desk for quick referral. Well-known examples of one-volume encyclopedias are the Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) and the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia contains approximately 6.6 million words and fifty thousand brief articles. Its articles are arranged alphabetically and compare favorably with many multi-volume encyclopedias. As a ready reference, the Columbia is a valuable guide. Almost 70 percent of the entries are biographical or geographical in nature. The articles are written in a scholarly yet easily comprehensible style. More than sixty-five thousand cross-references provide quick access to over fifty thousand articles. The Concise Columbia is an abridged version of the Columbia Encyclopedia; it is available in large print and electronic formats.

For additional examples of one-volume encyclopedias and for an in-depth look at general encyclopedias, consult Kister’s Best Encyclopedias: A Comparative Guide to General and Specialized Encyclopedias by Kenneth F. Kister (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1994). This book examines more than one thousand print and electronic encyclopedias. For each encyclopedia profiled, Kister provides information on cost, number of articles, and editors and contributors, and comments on the scope and arrangement of each. Kister also surveys specialized encyclopedias, foreign-language encyclopedias, publishers, and distributors.

Subject Encyclopedias

Subject encyclopedias are directed toward specialized audiences; they feature thorough scholarship and depth of coverage. They are best suited for an exhaustive study of a topic but can also fill the need for an overview of a subject. First Stop: The Master Index to Subject Encyclopedias by Joe Ryan (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1989) is an excellent guide to subject encyclopedias.

Subject encyclopedias are published in both multi-volume sets and in single-volume editions. They are not revised as often as general encyclopedias because the currency of their subject matter is not as critical as in general encyclopedias. Several subject encyclopedias should become standard sources of information for the serious family researcher. They include the Encyclopedia of Religion (cited earlier) and the older Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Scribner, 190827); Encyclopedia of American History (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) and The Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 197678; supplement, 1996); and Encyclopedia of World History, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972). Each of these titles gives accurate, reliable information for genealogists seeking an understanding of the era in which an ancestor lived. They will provide data on an ancestor’s religious beliefs, for example, and explain the world events taking place during that ancestor’s lifetime.

The Encyclopedia of Religion introduces more than three thousand articles on religious beliefs and symbols from ancient times to the present. Traditional Western and Eastern religions are examined and discussed in it. Nontraditional cults, primitive religions, and esoteric religious themes and traditions are also included. Were your ancestors Quakers? For those who have Quaker ancestors, the Encyclopedia of Religion offers an excellent article on the Religious Society of Friends, as the Quaker religion is more formally known. The article gives a history of Quakerism, including its founding in England by George Fox and its spread to New England and especially to Pennsylvania. Coverage of this subject encompasses almost four pages of text and includes a four-paragraph bibliography. In contrast, the same subject is covered in four paragraphs with three bibliographic references in the more general Academic American Encyclopedia (Princeton, N.J.: Grolier, 1980).

Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, published between 1908 and 1926, presents a less objective view of nontraditional, non-Western people and religions. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics is the product of an era in the English-speaking world when scholars viewed the world with a definite Western bias. Keeping this bias in mind, the researcher can find in it excellent, comprehensive coverage of religious subjects. For example, the Quaker religion is covered in six pages with an extensive bibliography. A statistical table notes that as of 31 December 1910, there were 94,852 orthodox Quakers in the United States and 22,401 members of splinter branches (the Hicksites and Wilburites) (Hastings 190827, 147). Family historians looking for a detailed examination of an ancestor’s religion will want to locate a copy of this reference source.

The history and beliefs of most major denominations are presented in encyclopedias of varying sizes. Researchers will find the New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 196795) and Encyclopedia Judaica (New York: Macmillan, 197172) in most large public and university libraries.

Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records


Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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