IT was 250 years ago on Monday that pages of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica began to circulate around Edinburgh, where the book was produced. The anniversary is being marked today by the National Library of Scotland, which has published a digitised version of the rare first edition of the Britannica online.

The encyclopedia was conceived, compiled, printed and published entirely in Edinburgh, and on December 10, 1768, the first pages were published of the work edited by William Smellie that would go one to become a perennial best-seller.

Subscribers were scandalised by explicit engravings – specifically those on midwifery – and it was decreed by the Crown that they be torn out of every copy.

However, the National Library has a complete copy in its collections and, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign for its digitisation, it has now made the first edition available for the world to view.

The National Library’s rare books curator Robert Betteridge believes the Britannica is one of the enduring achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment. He said: “By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint.

“The first edition emphasised two themes – modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law.

“Britannica became viewed as an authoritative source of facts about the world. Its first editor believed strongly in the democratisation of knowledge – that it should be accessible to all who sought self-improvement, regardless of background. We adhere to this belief at the library, which is why we are working to digitise and make available as many early editions as possible.”

The National Library’s head of development Lucy Clement added: “Britannica holds a special place in people’s memories. Many donors to our appeal have told us how, in childhood, it piqued their curiosity about the world around them and helped with their homework in the days before Google.

“They are fascinating time capsules of human knowledge and society’s values at particular points in our history and with the public’s help, we hope to make many more editions available for free online.”

The first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica will form part of the National Library’s major exhibition on the Scottish Enlightenment, due to open in the summer of 2019.