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The history of Spain’s most ambitious publishing project

Written by Beulah | 22nd January 2020

In mid-19th century Barcelona, a poor teenager delivering newspapers dreamt of starting his own publishing house. And that’s exactly what he did. José Espasa Anguera went on to publish what, for a time, would become the world’s greatest academic resource: the Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana. We asked books expert, Ángel Marzoa García, to tell us more about Spain’s most ambitious publishing project.

When José Espasa Anguera risked his life savings and founded a small subscription centre in 1860, few could have predicted that he was about to embark on one of the most ambitious undertakings in publishing history. 

This came at a time when it was a point of national pride for nations to have their own encyclopedias: Encyclopédie Française for the French, the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the British and the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie for the Germans. Not only were encyclopedias a way to gather together humankind's academic achievements for the perusal of eager minds, they were also a powerful force for propaganda. As much as their editors might claim impartiality, encyclopedias were rife with political agendas and often sought to enforce (or undermine) the establishment. It’s hardly surprising then, that Espasa Anguera decided that Spain needed its own encyclopedia.

The birth of the Enciclopedia Espasa

The Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana (or the Enciclopedia Espasa for short) was first published in 1908 and up until 1930, 72 volumes were published. These volumes were joined by a ten volume appendix (published between 1930 and 1933). Then between 1933 and 2003 a series of extra volumes, indexes and an atlas were released; bringing the combined total number of Espasa volumes to 118. Not only was this comparable with rival European encyclopedias of the time, it actually surpassed them in terms of length and publishing frequency.

Angel tells us more about Enciclopedia Espasa’s significance beyond just size: 

“In Spain, [Enciclopedia Espasa] became an "object of desire" for any family or professional wanting to be recognised. It was a symbol of social status, even if they had to buy it in installments with bank letters. It was very normal in any family or professional discussion to end up consulting the encyclopedia to resolve cultural discussions; "if it is not in La Espasa, it does not exist". And every library in the Spanish-speaking world pride itself on holding at least one copy of Spain’s premier encyclopedia.”

The list of Enciclopedia Espasa authors stretches into the hundreds, with 646 listed in 1930. Espasa was insistent that the Enciclopedia Espasa draw on contemporary academia, and many of the contributors were professors, teachers, journalists and general experts. “La Espasa managed to gather an extraordinary cast of experts,” Angel confirms. “Many stars of academia were listed on the Enciclopedia Espasa payroll. Thought leaders such as José Ortega y Gasset, Eugenio D'Ors, Manuel García Morente, Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Ramón Menéndez Pidal. Even Ramón Casas was hired to do some of the Enciclopedia Espasa’s illustrations.”

Although a recent article in La Razon emphasises that Enciclopedia Espasa was not only the preserve of the academic elite; representatives of the graphic arts, commerce, industry and even a farmer were also consulted while compiling the encyclopedia.

For a while Enciclopedia Espasa represented the the world’s greatest academic resource

The first Hispanic encyclopedia

The Enciclopedia Espasa was Spain’s first, greatest and longest encyclopedia and, unlike other publishers, Espasa didn’t just cater for his home market. Enciclopedia Espasa also featured a great deal of information about South America and included contributors from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking countries. Indeed, without its South-American focus, Enciclopedia Espasa might never have been published.

“The founding of Sociedad Anónima Espasa-Calpe with was a win-win joint adventure for Espasa and Madrid publisher Nicolás María de Urgoiti,” Angel explains. “Espasa had a great project in his hands, but limited funding. de Urgoiti only published literature through his publishing house–Editorial Calpe–but he wanted to reach new audiences. The fact that Calpe had offices in Argentina also fulfilled Espasa's desire to reach the South American market.”

This proved to be the encyclopedia’s salvation during the Spanish Civil War. The collectivisation of goods in Madrid caused Espasa-Calpe's production to grind to a halt. The publishers established a presence in Buenos Aires and made it relatively easy to relocate their HQ, and Espasa-Calpe Argentina S.A. was quickly founded. Not only could Enciclopedia Espasa continue publication, it maintained its editorial mission to collect the broadest possible selection of knowledge.

Printed encyclopedias in an online world

In modern times, however, Enciclopedia Espasa has not fared as well. Online encyclopedias like Wikipedia have monopolised the Enciclopedia Espasa’s readership, although its achievement of being the longest printed encyclopedia remains intact. Today, the value Enciclopedia Espasa holds is mainly in the eyes of the owner. “I have the abbreviated Encyclopedic Dictionary of Espasa-Calpe in my collection,” Angel tells us. “It has relatively little monetary value, but I have not discarded it because my collector’s heart never leaves me.”

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