Encyclopedia Britannica Free Online and Oxford English Dictionary Coming

1999: This week, Britannica.com Inc. announced that the entire 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica, which sells for $1,250 in its traditional book form, will now be available on the Internet free of charge.

“This is a momentous day for knowledge seekers everywhere,” said Britannica.com CEO Don Yannias. “Purchasing Encyclopedia Britannica was once a major milestone in a family’s life, but today we are fulfilling our promise to make it more accessible to more people worldwide.”

According to company spokesman Tom Panelas, this move does not mean that Britannica – originally published in 1768 by three Scottish printers, U.S.-owned between 1901 and 1995, and now privately held by an investment group headed by Swiss investor Jacob Safra – will suspend selling the “oldest continuously published reference work in the English language” on CD-ROM or in its bound print versions, which is great news for me, a lifelong encyclopedia fan.

However, while our family had two complete encyclopedias in the house when I was a kid – a World Book when I was very young, and a Colliers bought during my teenage years that is still in near-daily use – we never had a Britannica, and I’m looking forward to being able to access its pages online.

Unfortunately, the launch of the free Britannica.com website has not gone without some snags. Mr. Yannias posted a statement of explanation and apology, noting that excitement over what is widely acclaimed to be the most trusted source of information, learning, and knowledge being available for free on the Internet had created such an enormous volume of traffic that the company’s servers became overloaded.

In his message, Yannias said:

“We apologize to everyone who has been unable to access Britannica.com. The tremendous response to Britannica.com has created a tidal wave of activity on our site, and we are working hard to make the site available as quickly as possible.

“In many ways, we have truly been victims of our own success. We knew that the site would attract a significant number of users in its first day of operation, but we had no idea that this volume of traffic would be achieved so quickly. In spite of the problems that we are experiencing, we are encouraged by the high demand for Britannica.com and believe that you will soon find the site to be the best source for information on the Internet.

“Once again, I am truly sorry that we have not been able to provide access to our site for all of our visitors. We will have the technical problems resolved shortly, and look forward to welcoming you back to your new home on the Internet at Britannica.com.

“We trust that the technical glitches will soon be ironed out, and Britannica.com will be up and running by the time you read this.”

Meanwhile, the online Britannica may be ominous news for Microsoft’s relatively lightweight Encarta, which The Register’s Graham Lea recently referred to as “edutainment adapted to cater for regional user prejudice, rather than scholarship.”

In his column entitled Free Britannica to Cut Off Encarta’s Air Supply?, Mr. Lea observes that the new Britannica website could become “a significant portal.” With links to current news media and some 70 magazines, including Science, Newsweek, Fortune, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and The Economist; plus weather forecasts and other real-time data, and a searchable directory linked to a selection of websites chosen by Britannica’s editors, in addition to the full text of Encyclopedia Britannica, I expect that it will. The new company’s revenues are expected to derive mainly from advertising, and indeed a Britannica website should be an attractive venue for advertisers, particularly those offering upmarket merchandise.

Graham Lea also cites an account in Philip Evans and Thomas Wurster’s book, Blown to Bits, documenting how Britannica was knocked off its pedestal, at least in terms of sales revenues, by Encarta, as well as Grolier’s and Compton’s CD-ROM encyclopedias being bundled with many new personal computers. Britannica’s time-honored door-to-door sales motif was quietly dropped three years ago, but Britannica rebuffed a takeover bid from Microsoft, which then proceeded to cut a deal with middlebrow Funk & Wagnalls that yielded Encarta in 1993.

When Britannica’s previous owner, the University of Chicago-based William Benton Foundation, finally resolved to throw in the towel in 1995, Microsoft had lost interest in Britannica, and Mr. Safra’s group was able to purchase the company for terms that have not been disclosed but which are rumored to have been very favorable.

It is to be hoped that Britannica’s venture into cyberspace will breathe some new life into the struggling scholarly encyclopedia industry. While the Internet itself, with its plethora of search engines, is probably the stiffest competition traditional encyclopedias will face in the future, I believe there is still a place for traditional references like Britannica. As noted above, our old 1966 copy of Colliers still gets a heavy workout and has stood the test of time well.

We also have copies of Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia on CD-ROM (which I consider pretty pedestrian text and scholarship wise – not even up to our old print World Book), and SoftKey’s InfoPedia2 reference suite, another Funk & Wagnalls clone – but still a lot better than the Grolier’s content-wise, especially with it’s bundled Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Hammond World Atlas, World Almanac, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionaries of Quotations and English Usage, and Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary, all cross-referenced.

However, like Encarta, InfoPedia is simply not in the same league as the big old print volumes like Britannica and Colliers. (Incidentally, a CD-ROM version of the 17 million word Colliers Encyclopedia was offered on CD-ROM for Windows by Sierra as late as 1998, but I can find no current reference to it on Sierra’s website).

Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but 95 times out of 100 I am more inclined to grab a reference book when I want to look up something than to boot up a CD-ROM, although these days my first resort for general information on a topic is most likely to be a web search using either the FAST Search engine, InfoSeek, or AltaVista. However, if I know exactly what I’m after, say a quote, I find a book like The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations faster, more intuitive, and more tactility satisfying.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Speaking of Oxford dictionaries, the revered Oxford English Dictionary is scheduled to make its web debut in March. Widely considered to be the most authoritative and comprehensive English language dictionary in the world, and the definitive “last word” in English language development, the OED in its online edition will reportedly not just be a digital version of the print volume, but rather reflect the state of work-in-progress the dictionary’s first complete revision in its 120 year history – which is not expected to be completed until 2010. The Web version will be updated four times a year as the revision progresses.

The OED contains over fifty-nine million words, close to 300,000 entries, and more than two million illustrative quotations. In this era of information overload and creeping cultural illiteracy, it is encouraging to see these august repositories of cultural knowledge staking out turf in the new media.

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