Abstract: Prefacing Consumers: The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771-2010

Steve Jankowski


Who reads the Encyclopaedia Britannica? This question has constituted one of the key concerns in creating one of the most influential and tenacious products of the Enlightenment. In this paper, I mobilize Silverstone & Haddon's design and domestication model to understand how each edition's altruistic designs have also been entangled with social inequalities. These tensions will be explored through a longitudinal study of each edition's preface, a document with many purposes. Throughout 239 years, it has been used to explain the Britannica's philosophical organization, describe its business model, advertise its editorial mechanisms and to capture the imagination of consumers. In writing the preface, the editors display their expectations for particular kinds of people to use the encyclopedia in particular kinds of ways. The paper explores how the justifications of these users as scholars, specialists, students, subscribers, ordinary men, and the public are not only idealistic constructions but also constitute rhetorical moves to take advantage of various political, economic, and technological conditions. This mix of ideals, innovation, and business provides valuable insight into how the dream of the Enlightenment, when put into practice over two and a half centuries, has been complicated with British and American imperialism, elitism, profit, and patriarchy.