New Exhibit in Special Collections: A Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

What constitutes useful knowledge?  Still asked by educational institutions and individuals aspiring to new endeavors, the question is both elusive and definitive depending upon how broadly philosophical or concretely specific the inquiry. The “useful” component of the query is further complicated by the circumstantial connection of knowledge to social, political, or economic environments and the fact that existing knowledge creates new knowledge.

Plate from Encyclopedie methodique, Chirurgie
Plate from Encyclopedie methodique, Chirurgie, [1784].
The European movement known as the Enlightenment is widely considered the initial impetus toward a modern examination of knowledge.  Beginning in the late 17th century, intellectuals sought to reform society beyond traditional or superstitious explanations with an emphasis on reason and scientific method. One of the crowning achievements was the 35-volume Encyclopédie.  Compiled and published over the course of twenty-one years (1751-1772), the Encyclopédie was seen as a way to publicly capture and disseminate the world’s knowledge ranging from philosophy to science to commerce and for the first time, the mechanical arts.

These new intellectual developments soon spread to urban centers across Europe and to Britain’s American colonies in part due to the acute curiosity of Benjamin Franklin. Quick to see the benefits of dispersing useful knowledge through every means possible, Franklin was a force behind the colonial establishment of intellectual gatherings and information exchange in the colonies. For Franklin, scientific experiment and the mechanical arts were promoted above all others.

Page from Thirty Plates Illustrative of Natural Phenomena
Page from Thirty Plates Illustrative of Natural Phenomena, etc., Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge … 1846.

From these roots, the quest to propagate information and encourage self-betterment rapidly proliferated into societies, clubs, lectures, debates, demonstrations, and affordable publications. The application of steam power technology to the printing press along with other mechanical innovations in the 19th century enabled these initiatives to be accessible further down the social ranks. The diffusion of useful knowledge became a cultural movement as well as the namesake of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

A new exhibit titled Diffusion of Useful Knowledge looks at some of the intellectual movements and social organizations that sought to define and promote “useful knowledge” spanning the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th century.  While many of the methods used to convey knowledge, such as encyclopedias, lectures, and a variety of educational publications, are still widely in use today, the question of “what” makes the knowledge worth pursuing continues to evolve.

The exhibit is viewable through December 2014 in Special Collections and Archives in the John T. Richardson Library, Room 314. A digital version of a Diffusion of Useful Knowledge is also available from the DePaul University Library’s Exhibits page.

For additional information, contact Special Collections and Archives at or stop by our department in the John T. Richardson Library, Room 314.

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