Organizers: Linn Holmberg, Stockholm University, & Maria Simonsen, Aalborg University


Stranded encyclopedia. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarsson, Uppsala University Library

Call for papers

This call for papers goes out to scholars who study unfinished and unpublished encyclopedias, compiled c. 1600–2000.

The history of modern encyclopedias has long been dominated by serial narratives of successful, influential publications. However, if we want to refine our understanding of modern encyclopedism as practice – its varieties, development, motivations, and geographical expansion – best-selling works may not necessarily be the most useful sources. As Richard Yeo has remarked, ‘encyclopedic dreams have almost always outrun achievements’ and throughout history, many ‘large projects were left unfinished, stranded at some volume before the end of the alphabet’.[1] Now, for the first time, this international and interdisciplinary symposium places this category of works and their production histories at the center.  

What kind of ‘encyclopedias’?

The symposium will focus on alphabetically-organized knowledge compendia, that is, factual dictionaries or real-lexica, with general as well as specialized scope of content. This means that we consciously exclude thematic reference-works (which may also possess encyclopedic-like properties), such as common-place books, text-books, manuals, etc. This is a strategic choice to enable more focused discussions and comparisons over time and place. Geographically, we are open to cases from the whole world.      

Why ‘stranded’ encyclopedias?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, stranded means ‘unable to leave somewhere because of a problem, such as not having any transport or money’. In this respect, stranded is a word that provokes an inquisitiveness about circumstances and motives. What happened here, and why? What drove the people involved? What was the purpose and function of their work?  

Motives and practices

By comparing stranded encyclopedias during a four-hundred-year period – starting with the first appearances of vernacular factual dictionaries in seventeenth-century continental Europe, and ending with the transition of large-scale encyclopedias to digital media in the late twentieth century –  we hope to explore a wider spectrum of reasons for why people have devoted themselves to alphabetical encyclopedism as practice. One should not assume, however, that all dictionary manuscripts were ‘stranded’ in the sense of ‘failing to be finished or published’ – at least not in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some manuscripts seem to have been compiled for personal use primarily, as part of a learning strategy. It is thus possible that such texts were not only never meant to be published, but never meant to be finished.

Geographical expansion and circulation

Moreover, by examining unrealized projects, we may get other insights into the transnational circulation or geographical expansion of alphabetical encyclopedic practice, outside prominent publishing centers on the European continent. Histories of encyclopedias that are based on a chronology of published works tend to convey the idea that encyclopedic practice or innovation ‘reached’ a region, nation, or colony at the moment when its first publications appeared. Reasonably, since practice precedes publication (possibly without resulting in publication for a long time), such assumptions are misleading. Here, studies of unfinished and unpublished encyclopedic manuscripts may rewrite such histories, while simultaneously raising questions about how we define encyclopedism as a historical practice – what it was, where, and when.

[1] Richard Yeo, Encyclopedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture (2011), p. 4. 

Paper proposals

We encourage scholars of all disciplines, nationalities, and at all career stages to submit paper proposals regarding unfinished/unpublished encyclopedic projects of both general and specialized character. Participants are especially encouraged to reflect upon methodological possibilities and challenges associated with their sources. Abstracts should not exceed 250 words and be sent to and The deadline for submission is 1 March 2018.

It is our ambition to later edit and publish the symposium papers in an anthology.

A note on economy

Participation in the symposium is free of charge and includes reception dinner, lunch, and refreshments. We may be able to contribute financially to travel and accommodation of a certain number of students/researchers with limited financial means. Please indicate in your proposal if (and why) you would benefit from such support.

The symposium is a collaboration between Stockholm University, the Department of Culture and Aesthetics, History of Science and Ideas, and Aalborg University, the Department of Culture and Global Studies, Contemporary History.

Contact the organizers

Linn Holmberg, PhD
Researcher in History of Science and Ideas
Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University, Sweden

Maria Simonsen, PhD
Assistant professor in History  
Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark

More information at the Aalborg University website.