Smithsonian Libraries and Archives: “A 19th Century Encyclopedia Gets a Makeover”

From the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives blog “Unbound”:

Between 1849 and 1851, Johan George Heck published his encyclopedia Bilder-Atlas zum Conversations-Lexicon and the work continues to offer valuable insight into life in the 19e-century. With over 12,000 individual illustrations on over 500 engraved plates, the book beautifully depicts a wide range of topics in science and culture. Much like our own Smithsonian Institution, it covered topics ranging from art to zoology. Now, a new digital edition brings knowledge into the 21st century the viewers.


The illustrations in Iconographic encyclopedia were printed using Heck’s original steel plates Bilder-Atlas and still included German labels. Science historian Eugene Ferguson called them “exceptionally sharp and attractive” and even today they look like a nice assortment of 19and century clip art. In total, the final publication consisted of four text volumes with two plate atlas volumes.


The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives have two complete sets of the first edition of Icononographic Encyclopedia. The whole in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Natural History Library belonged to Baird himself. The whole in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Librarygift from the Hewitt sisters, has been digitized and is available in our digital librarythe Biodiversity Heritage Libraryand the Internet Archive.

We love how our digitized collections find new life on screens around the world and through a recent project by Nicholas Rougeux, Iconographic encyclopedia is now even more accessible. Using our images from the Internet Archive, Rougeux transformed the static pages of a 19th century book in an interactive resource. Users can browse the four volumes by subject and manipulate the plates to highlight individual figures.

Learn more, read the full blog post

Improved digital edition of the direct iconographic encyclopedia

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