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French-Language Encyclopedias

By Philip Harber

Volume 16 Number 3

People used to say of some verbally precocious child that he or she had swallowed the dictionary. Even if they only meant that it had been read from cover to cover, the expression was a picturesque exaggeration, since few people find the dictionary entertaining reading matter. But a good encyclopedia? That's different. . . Even if you only have volume I (A-And) of an out-of-date set, say of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), you have hours of profitable reading ahead of you and you will end up with lots of trivia about things beginning with A.


The easy way to distinguish between dictionaries and encyclopedias is to read them: the former are for quick reference and the latter are for reading at greater length More strictly, Alain Rey* defines the entries in an encyclopedia as words relating to things, and entries in a dictionary as words relating to words (p. 20). There are also exceptions and hybrids: encyclopedic dictionaries in one volume like the Petit Larousse, and dictionaries full of examples in multiple volumes like the Oxford English Dictionary or Littre. Here we are concerned with the general encyclopedia and its importance in library research in French at the high school level.

Most reference books such as Collison** divide encyclopedias into two groups based on the way the material is organized: alphabetical and topical (methodique, systematique or thematique in French). The alphabetical arrangement of relatively short entries on specific topics is apparently more popular in English-speaking countries (e.g. World Book) and Germany (e.g. Brockhaus Enzyklopadie), whereas the topical organization of longer articles with access through a comprehensive index seems to be favoured by the French

As a compromise, both the Britannica 3 and the French Encyclopaedia Universalis combine a large set (Macropaedia, Corpus) with a smaller set (Micropaedia, Thesaurus) for ready reference, with an exhaustive index and synthetic volume (Propaedia, Organum) to suit different readers and needs. These two just happen to be the most academic and difficult encyclopedias to use.

The term alphabetic is self-explanatory, while methodeque implies a methodical classification of all knowledge for an encyclopedie universelle like Diderot's famous work, also called Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers. The volumes of a methodique encyclopedic collection like the prestigious Encyclopedie de la Pleiade, the wide-ranging series called Que sais je?, or the Bibliotheque Laffont des Crands Themes lack the convenience of the true encyclopedia because they were not planned as a whole, with indexes for easy access to smaller topics within a larger one or, as in the Pleiade volumes, within a major discipline. The Petite Encyclopedie Larousse or the Tout connaitre are examples of the methodique approach.

The alphabetical arrangement is to be found in the Livre des connaissances, which is aimed at a North American readership, but not in the Grand Quid illustré, a lavishly illustrated and up-to-date work that is also being published in bound parts quite inexpensively.

The use of the general encyclopedia for research is discouraged by many teachers and teacher-librarians after the elementary grades if other supplementary reference materials are available. In French collections for second-language learners there may be little on a chosen topic (for independent study, for example) except the encyclopedia. The answer in the long run is to plan your collection to include more "documents" or French non-fiction series.

Meanwhile, if you are planning to buy a French-language encyclopedia, the same criteria should be applied to it as to English encyclopedias: the work must be up to date, frequently and systematically revised according to high standards of scholarship and authority, and easy enough to read for students to use it. (We envisage something like the World Book Encyclopedia in French . . . but there is no such work). There may be evidence of bias or prejudice of various kinds (as described in an article by Marie-Clotilde Jacquey*** on the ready reference Quid), but a cursory glance cannot tell you this.

The physical appearance of the volumes and the lay out of the pages are important. For example, in the Grand Quid illustré, a double-page spread with large colour illustrations covers a single topic on at least two levels of difficulty, whereas in other cases, e.g. Universalis, solid columns of difficult text without many accompanying pictures or diagrams may stump a second-language reader.

Perhaps there is an alternative to consulting the encyclopedia. Instead of using a set or a few sets of encyclopedias to satisfy all needs, you can build up the non-fiction collection by acquiring titles on the most often sought topics in the numerous documentary series available at the appropriate levels. For example, the Decouvertes series (some are now being published in English) cater to three levels: grades 4 to 6 (Decouvertes Benjamin), grades 7, 8 and 9 (Decouvertes Cadet and the subseries Cadet Biographies), and grades 10 and up (Decouvertes Gallimard). New titles are added regularly to make up encyclopedic collections for a readership different from those of Que sais je? and Pleiade. You can buy only the titles you want in multiple copies if need be, instead of having to put encyclopedias on reserve.

A French collection well supplied with this type of non-fiction material can cope with demands for information on famous artists, writers and musicians; monuments of culture, facets of history and geography-technology, science, arts and crafts; songs and poems, and much besides. Add to these the ready-reference one-volume works like Petit larousse en coiffeurs, Robert 2, Encyclopedie alphabetique larousse omnis and, for Canadian content, the three volume Encyclopedie du Canada, and there will be something for the browser, the independent student the various curriculum areas and even the crossword puzzle lover.

This is not an instant solution to the lack of an ideal French encyclopedia for second-language students, but it is better than buying works that do not meet the criteria you would apply to your English-language collection. Other recommended series are Bibliotheque documentaire de l'é des loisirs, Hachette's Echos Encyclopedie, Nathan's Monde en poche and Doc. en poche, and EdiligJeunesse's Poche-Encyclopedie.

*Rey, Alain. Encyclopedies et dictionnaires. Presses Universitaires de France,1982.

**Collison, Robert. Encyclopaedias: Their History throughout the Ages. Hafner, 1964.

***Jacquey, Marie-Clotilde. "Suivez le Quid". La Revue des livres pour enfants. 115-116 (Automne, 1987), pp. 43-47. Shows that even brief references in a chronology of World War 11 can reveal editorial bias.

Encyclopedias cited

Bibliotheque documentaire de l'é des loisirs series. é des loisirs.

Bibliotheque Laffont des Grands Themes. Laffont/ Lausanne, Grammont, 1975. Approximately 40 titles.

Decouvertes series. Gallimard. Decouvertes Benjamin Decouvertes Cadet, Decouvertes Gallimard.

Doc. en poche series. F. Nathan.

Echos-Encyclopedie series. Hachette.

Encyclopaedia Universalis. Corpus -- 16 vols. Thesaurus 3 vols. Organum -1 vol. Club Francais du livre, 1968 Encyclopaedia Universalis,1985.

Encyclopedie alphabetique larousse Omnis. larousse, 1977.

Encyclopedie de la Pleiade. Sous la dir. de Raymond Queneau . Gallimard NRF, 1955-Serie methodique. Serie historique.

Encyclopedie du Canada. 3 vols. Stanke, 1987.

Encyclopedie où Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers 35 vols. Comp. D. Diderot et 1. d'Alembert. Briasson, 175180, repr.1966-67. Plates repr. as L 'Encyclopedie Diderot et d'Alembert: planches et commentaires. Commente par J. Proust. Hachette,1985.

Grand Quid illustré. 18 vols. Laffont, 1979-81.Dossiers du Grand Quid illustré. Laffont,198

Littre, P.-E. Dictionnaire de la langue francaise. 7 vols. Pauvert, puis Gallimard, 1956-58. Nouv. ed. en 4 vols. plus suppl. (1983). Encyclopedia Britannica, 1982.

Livre des connaissances 15 vols.Grolier,1980.

Monde en poche series. F. Nathan.

Petit larousse en couleurs. Larousse, 1988. The annually updated colour version of the famous Petit larousse.

Petit larousse illustré. derniere ed. larousse,1988.

Petit Encyclopedie larousse. Larousse,1977.

Poche-Encyclopedie series. Edilig-Jeunesse.

Que sais-je? series. Presses Universitaires de France. More than 2,000 titles.

Robert 2. Societe E. Robert. Encyclopedic dictionary of proper names.

Tout connaitre: we nouveau tout connaftre, encyclopedic en couleurs. 16 vols. Eds. Populaires, s.d.

Other encyclopedias

Alpha encyclopedia 17 vols. Eds. Alpha; Tout Connal-tre, 1970

Alpha-juniors: encyclopedie pour les jeunes. 11 vols. Eds. Alpha,1979.

Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopedique larousse. 10 vols. derniere ed. larousse,1988.

Grand larousse en 5 vols larousse,1987.

Grande Encyclopedie larousse. 20 vols. plus index. derniere ed. larousse,1988.

Nouvelle encyclopedic do Livre d'Or. IS vols. Deux Coqs d'Or,1974-Alphabetical.

line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


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