180 years since the birth of the publisher of the largest Czech encyclopaedia

Otto's Encyclopaedia

Without question, the publication of Otto’s Encyclopaedia (Ottův slovník naučný) marked among the most important chapters in Czech publishing history. For its scope and depth, the work is oftgen comparable to the famous Encyclopædia Britannica. Jan Otto was born on November 8, 1841.

The publication of an encyclopaedia requires the cooperation of hundreds of scholars, scientists, historians, and men of letters. The successful bookseller and editor Jan Otto was able to coordinating their work within the context of the highly divided Czech society near the end of the 19th century.

Jan Otto | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Published in 40,000 copies, the first edition immediately sold out, and the exceptional interest in the encyclopaedia lasted from the beginning until the end of its publication, namely from January 1888 until the year 1908.

The first volume cost 28 krejcars – a symbolic number, as Otto’s Encyclopaedia would grow to 28 volumes (27 regular ones and a supplement). The complete work totalled nearly 29,000 pages and 150,000 entries. That is not much fewer than in the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica completed at about the same time. The entries were accompanied by some 5,000 illustrations.

For over a century, Otto’s Encyclopaedia was the largest and remains the most important of Czech encyclopaedias. It was not until the years 2010-2011 that the Czech version of Wikipedia surpassed the number of entries. The publication by Jan Otto remains an excellent source of information, especially due to its countless historical references.

Apart from as bookseller and editor, Jan Otto served on numerous cultural committees, was active in political life on the Živnostenská Bank board, and as of 1912, a member of the Parliament of Austria-Hungary (Panská sněmovna).