Saturday, 30 August 2014

Dr Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia

One of the immutable laws of library stocktaking is that a book is much more likely to survive a weeding program if it is part of a set. And so, when reviewing the non-fiction collection of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute, we were struck by the number of volumes of Dr Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia that were still held.

The remarkable Dionysius Lardner pitched his idea of a thematic cyclopaedia to Longmans in the late 1820s, and the first volume was published in 1830. When the final volume appeared in 1844 it brought the total to 133.

Dr Lardner was the author of the Arithmetic, Heat, Hydrostatics and Pneumatics, Geometry, Electricity and Magnetism volumes, and co-author of Mechanics.

He commissioned works from notable writers and authorities to expand his Cyclopaedia into the areas of History, Biography, the Arts, Natural Science, Philosophy, Manufactures, and even a volume on Taxidermy. Sir Walter Scott wrote a two volume history of Scotland; Thomas Moore the history of Ireland; Robert Southey three of the four volumes on the lives of British Naval Commanders. Mary Shelley contributed to the biographies of Eminent French Authors.

In a Catalogue of the Distinct Works of Dr Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia published in 1840, the series was recommended as being "very advantageous for FAMILIES resident in the country who are not provided with a library, - for the libraries of MECHANICS' INSTITUTIONS and of LITERARY and PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETIES."

Lardner was a popular lecturer, appearing regularly at London's mechanics' institutions, and on the circuit of provincial literary and philosophical societies and mechanics' institutes. He wrote for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge on a variety of scientific topics. He can be seen as an important mediator of scientific knowledge, dedicated to providing the general populace with an understanding of new technologies in a time of rapid change.

Title Vignette from Dr Lardner's Treatise on Arithmetic, Vol LV of the Cabinet Cyclopaedia

A feature of the Cyclopaedia's appeal was its low cost. Each uniformly bound octavo volume cost six shillings. In 1853, Longmans reduced the price to three shillings and sixpence, and a complete set could be had for nineteen guineas.

At present 97 volumes, including some duplicates and donations, have been located in the Launceston Mechanics' Institute collection. Most show the external evidence of heavy use. When the entire collection was re-accessioned circa 1890, the Cabinet Cyclopaedia was one of the first priorities and was given running numbers from 305- 410, suggesting it was collocated and occupied a prominent place in the Reading Room's reference collection despite its age. Later, when the collection was reclassified using the Dewey Decimal system, volumes were moved to their subject areas but continued to form part of the working collection.

Much could be written about Lardner's colourful career. The interested reader is directed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for a balanced account which ranges across his personal life, scientific achievements and his other writing and publishing activities. It also references some varied, and at times satirical, personal assessments by his contemporaries.

While Lardner is a largely forgotten figure today, it is worth noting as a gloss that he was Karl Marx's "go-to" man on matters relating to the economics of railways, and is quoted extensively in 'Das Kapital'.

For a detailed account of the Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Morse Peckham's  ‘Dr Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia’, in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 45 (1951), pp 37–58, is recommended.