May 16, 2022

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

From the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives “Unbound” Blog:

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 19th-century. With over 12,000 individual illustrations on over 500 engraved plates, the book beautifully depicts a wide range of subjects in scientific and cultural fields. Much like our very own Smithsonian Institution, it covered topics from art to zoology. Today, a new digital edition helps brings its knowledge to 21st-century viewers.   


The illustrations in Iconographic Encyclopaedia were printed using the original steel plates from Heck’s Bilder-Atlas and still included German labels. Historian of Science Eugene Ferguson called them “unusually sharp and attractive” and even today they resemble a fine assortment of 19th century clip art.  All told, the final publication comprised four volumes of text with two atlas volumes of plates. 


The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives has two complete sets of the first edition of Icononographic Encyclopaedia. The set in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History belonged to Baird himself. The set in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library, gift of the Hewitt sisters, has been digitized and is available in our Digital Library, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the Internet Archive.   

We love how our digitized collections find renewed life on screens around the world and thanks to a recent project by Nicholas Rougeux, Iconographic Encyclopaedia is now even more accessible. Using our images from the Internet Archive, Rougeux has transformed the static pages of a 19th-century book into an interactive resource. Users can browse across all four volumes by topic and manipulate the plates to highlight individual figures.   

Learn More, Read the Complete Blog Post

Direct to Iconographic Encylopædia Enhanced Digital Edition

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.