As you may have heard, the Wifey and I bought a van load of old books at a rural auction. We have touched pretty much everything we got at the auction, but we’re just getting to looking deeply at our new acquisitions. We’ve set aside boxes of ‘cutters’ (damaged or otherwise worthless picture books, for altered art), books for resale, and books to keep. In the end, we found that most of what we got were boxes of encyclopedias — partial encyclopedia sets. Oh, there were a few complete sets. Spread out amongst 3 or 4 boxes we assembled two complete sets of the Teacher’s and Pupil’s Cyclopedia…which I already owned a set of. You know you’ve got a book-collecting problem when you own three copies of the same encyclopedia. I may write more about those in the future. The most disappointing partial set we acquired is The Book of Knowledge.
The Book of Knowledge traces its origin back to 1880s England, when writer Arthur Mee was enlisted to write for Sir Alfred Harmsworth’s “Harmsworth Self-Educator“, a magazine of facts and instruction on improving one’s life and knowledge. In editing and compiling the varied and flowering knowledge that filled the pages of the Self-Educator, Mee saw value to compiling an educational library for children. In 1908, Mee released The Children’s Encyclopedia. Today, we visualize an encyclopedia as a alphabetized collection of dry, informational articles that you used to jump-start a grade school research paper. Mee’s Encyclopedia was nothing of the sort. The Children’s Encyclopedia was far more magazine-like in structure, having no categorical or alphabetical organization. Categories could be seen, but no individual volume had more or less of any particular type of information than any other. Grab any single volume, and it contains short stories, how-to articles, poetry, scientific explanations, moral instruction, and historical narratives. Mee’s intent was to include the basis for an entire education in a few dozen books.
In 1912, Mees’ Children’s Encyclopedia was embraced by the 20-year-old Grolier Society, Inc. Grolier was a subscription-based publisher at that time, selling book series door-to-door and selling editions on a monthly basis. The first major change to the Children’s Encyclopedia was a change of name: Grolier released the American edition as The Book of Knowledge.
The Book of Knowledge lent itself well to being purchased in installments: each the unstructured volume stands well on its own, broken up into chapters (called ‘books’) such as “The Book of the Earth”, “The Book of Golden Deeds”, “The Book Of Our Own Life”. Each ‘book’ has several chapters, each a separate, stand-alone article. While the books are intended for children, the basic knowledge isn’t dumbed-down to an insulting level. The books are well-written, readable by children and adults alike, and many articles appear written for children and adults to read together. Mee continued his writing, when not revising his Encyclopedia, by publishing The Children’s Newspaper, a periodical extension of the Encyclopedia that is still available online.
It appears that we own the 1912 first US edition, because there is no date later than 1911 on the copyright page. Editions were put out well into the 1960s, after which time Grolier had acquired the Encyclopedia Americana, and revised the Book of Knowledge as the New Book of Knowledge with a more encyclopedic format. In terms of value, there’s a dual market for these books. Collectors, like myself, love the older editions with their classic literature and Edwardian progressive sensibilities, but the other market is a bit more unusual. I was quite surprised to find out that Home-Schooling organizations recommend using the Book of Knowledge in curriculum due to its relevance and ease in education. As I mentioned above, our set of The Book of Knowledge is one of the encyclopedia sets that is, sadly, incomplete. The original set was 20 volumes, and we’ve got about 3/4. It may take some shopping to get a complete set, but I have every intention of completing this wonderful series.