From the year 1408 until 2007, the Yongle Encyclopedia was the longest single reference work ever composed. Commissioned by the Chinese emperor Yongle in 1403, the eponymous encyclopedia included nearly 23,000 manuscript rolls arranged in over 11,000 volumes. That's about 40 cubic meters of parchment, containing over 370 million Chinese characters. It was designed to cover every scrap of knowledge held by the Confucian canon and the 15th century Chinese Imperial court, which was no small sum of information.
Perhaps more staggering than its sheer size is that it took the Yongle Encyclopedia less time to reach completion than it took Wikipedia to displace it. Over 2,000 professional scholars worked for five consecutive years to deliver the Yongle Encyclopedia — and they wrote it by hand. (The manuscript was simply too large and cumbersome to be block printed.) It took Wikipedia six years and the full power of the crowdsourced Internet to displace the Yongle Encyclopedia in size. To be fair, though, the Yongle authors didn't have to worry about documenting every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Sadly, no complete copy of the Yongle Encyclopedia survives. A series of palace fires destroyed the originals and copies of all but 400 of the initial volumes, though surviving master indices do give exact measures of the encyclopedia's total size. Still, the Yongle Encyclopedia has not fallen entirely out of print; an abridged 100-volume copy of the original Chinese text was published in 1962. It's true, just ask Wikipedia.
That's not just some reverential resurrection of reference materials, it's a bibliographically mind-blowing burst of Geek Trivia.
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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.