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Encyclopedias are often overlooked by scholars as too basic a source. Certainly looking at the contents of many popular encyclopedias this would be the conclusion one would reach. However, the scholarly encyclopedias that have been produced in many of the East European countries can be essential starting points when researching an unfamiliar topic. They will, of course, provide an overview on the topic. But more than that, they can give a general idea on the literature available of the topic. They also frequently provide some information on the status of an individual. That is, for example, if someone appears in the encyclopedias one year, but is omitted in future volumes, that individuals political status was in question.


Identifying encyclopedias can be more or less difficult depending on the country. The Russians have provided detailed guides to both their general and subject encyclopedias (for a list of the major guides see the biographical resource section on Russian Encyclopedias). For the rest of Eastern Europe the situation is less clearly defined. Certainly the regional guides are a starting point. The sources listed in the “Annotated Guide to Handbooks” will be helpful in gaining some orientation to the variety of encyclopedias available for the individual regions. Balay’s Guide to reference books is generally available in libraries and will help you find many of the major encyclopedias for the area, while Croucher’s Slavic studies provides more a thorough listing of paper sources.

One source that might be overlooked is Richard Lewanski’s four volume A bibliography of Slavic dictionaries. Lewanski has compiled an excellent general list of the encyclopedic sources for all countries of Eastern Europe up to 1973. The only region he does not include in his coverage of encyclopedias is Russia because the existing guides for the region were so comprehensive (see above).

In some cases, the encyclopedias themselves provide information on the publishing history of this type of resource in each country. Thus, if one checks the Ottuv slovnik naucny (Dodatky) there is an entry for “Slovnik naucny.” Here there is a listing of the general encyclopedias of the time. To find a more complete list one would need to check a more thorough bibliographic guide such as Croucher’s Slavic studies or Czerny’s Einführung in die Tschechoslowakische bibliographie bis 1918. See also Czech/Slovak Encyclopedias for annotations of some of the major Czech and Slovak encyclopedias. For Poland, the bibliographic guides are excellent and give a complete listing of publications that fall into the category of “encyclopedia.” One need only check Hahn’s Bibliografia bibliografij polskich to find a complete list, some with brief annotations. Croucher has many of the titles listed here as well. Croucher’s guide is an excellent starting point for all of the area.

Once you have identified the titles you find interesting the next step is locating them. When conducting an online search there are some characteristics of the catalogs and the subject headings to keep in mind. The number of matches you identify will be determined by certain features of the catalog. If you are searching WorldCat, for example, the headings listed below would yield varying results depending on the field you searched. That is, if you choose to search “encyclopedias and dictionaries, Russian” in the subject field you will get different results than if you search the same phrase in the keyword field. Next to each heading below, in bold type is the “index field”. The index field specifies the field that will be searched for the term. Most of the catalogs will allow the user to select which fields to search: author, title, subject, keyword, etc. The field you select will have rather drastic effects on your results.

  • Encyclopedias and dictionaries, Russian Subject [Yielded 1,327 matches]
  • Encyclopedias and dictionaries, Russian Subject Phrase [Yielded 899 matches]
  • Encyclopedias and dictionaries, Russian Keyword [Yielded 1,644 matches]

The choice of subject words or heading will also seriously effect what you find. The general structure for the subject heading for encyclopedias can take a number of forms. Below are examples of some headings that occur for Russian encyclopedias in WorldCat. These search terms were all searched as “keywords” as mentioned above.

  • Russia–History–Encyclopedias [Yielded 905 matches]
  • Russia–Encyclopedias [Yielded 2,315 matches]
  • Theater–Russia– Encyclopedias [Yielded 55 matches]

These search terms are listed here to indicate some of the considerations the researcher must bear in mind when beginning a search. As should be clear from these examples, the more general the search terms the greater the number of items returned in the search.


Barzun’s Modern Researcher stresses that it is also necessary to consider other electronic resources. While these do not include many retrospective encyclopedic sources, there are many vernacular language encyclopedias available on the web. Unfortunately, there are no single sources for locating these resources. The most effective way of identifying vernacular language encyclopedias at this point would be to use subject gateways. The best access to these for Eastern Europe and Russia lies in the large search engine sites, e.g., www.searchenginecolossus.com, or subject specific sites such as www.encyclopedia.ru and www.rubricon.ru. Encyclopedia.ru will provide the user with a list of links to a variety of different types of encyclopedias, all in Russian. Each encyclopedia is described in detail and the user is able to search each from the general site or link to the individual resource. There are links to biographical resources and to old editions of the Brokgauz encyclopedia. It is very important to read the descriptions of the material that are available or the user can be easily misled. In the case of the Brokgaus, the edition that is available, while interesting, is not the scholarly edition that one normally associates with this name.


While the Web may not provide access to the full text of all encyclopedias, it does provide an avenue for identifying encyclopedias via library catalogs. There are many strategies for identifying encyclopedic resources. One of the most important is to keep in mind that what might function as an encyclopedia, may be called a dictionary. Since the term dictionary often encompasses the subject encyclopedia it can useful be a search term in an online catalog.

Encyclopedias have a wealth of information and fulfill a variety of functions. It is important to recognize that their flexibility often places them in several categories–dictionary, encyclopedia or even city guide. When you search for encyclopedic sources without a specific title, it will help to remember the various rubrics under which they might hide in a library catalog.