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Brittanica Bytes

Will the heavyweight of encyclopedias be a victor or victim of the digital revolution?

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The future of the Encyclopedia Britannica may depend on what's happening in two small rooms. One's located within the gray tower at 310 S. Michigan that houses the company's world headquarters. The other is 2,000 miles away in an unremarkable office building in La Jolla, California. The two rooms contain little more than tables piled with computer gear. But within the metal casings in both locations is a version of the encyclopedia that's not only more accurate than the 1995 version of the print set, but already contains far more information—well over 1,000 more articles—than any future printed Britannica will ever hold. Every second, bits of this pool of information are being zapped out to users over the Internet.

Launching Britannica into the electronic age has cost a lot, and it's been done at a time when sales of the print sets have plummeted—down from 117,000 in 1990 to 51,000 in 1994. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., which publishes several other reference books, has lost more than $22 million in the last three years. The company has admitted that it needs an infusion of cash, probably in the form of a buyer. But ultimately the company's survival will depend on something else: whether its new electronic incarnations can captivate 21st-century everymen the way the printed books have for the past 226 years.

Although books and computers are often cast as adversaries, a curious link between the print Britannica and the cyberworld materialized some years ago. Robert McHenry, EB's current editor, says that sometime in the early 1980s he and his coworkers began fielding an increasing number of queries about the precise number of words in the set of books. "It took a while, and noticing that the calls were generally from computer-related firms, before it was realized that Britannica was being used as an informal unit of measure," McHenry noted in a recent in-house memo, "It has apparently become common to express memory capacity or, more often, data transmission rates in terms of so many Encyclopaedia Britannicas or EBs per second."

If it helps computer jockeys to think of transmitted information in terms of EBs per second, the 44-million-word description doesn't convey how much there is within the books. Consider this: one 32-volume set of the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica includes about the same number of words as 140 average textbooks. The Macropaedia entry for the "United States of America" contains 300,000 words--the equivalent of four or five trade books.

Inside the headquarters repose reminders of Britannica's other unique form of avoirdupois--its cultural weight. On the third floor, in the company library, five black metal bookshelves hold a set of every edition ever printed. The three volumes in the upper left-hand corner of the top shelf, are replicas of the first edition, produced in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771. An authentic first edition is in a glass case up on the ninth floor, but it's too rare and valuable to be used as a casual research tool. Terry Passaro, who's been EB's head librarian since 1972, says that throughout her tenure, the company has had a standing request at Sotheby's and Blackwell's, the Oxford bookstore, to be informed about any first editions that surface anywhere in the world. "And I have never been called. Wherever they are, they're set. They just don't move."

Yet even the replica delights Passaro, who points out that the first fat volume contains entries beginning with A and B, and the second volume C through L. "Then they wanted to get it done real fast." M through Z are crammed into the third and final book. She looks up "woman" and finds only "The female of man." She gives a merry laugh and says, "That's about as much as they were going to give us!" Under "California," is "A large country of the West Indies, lying between 116 and 138 west longitude and between 23 degrees and 46 north latitude. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island."

Ten volumes of the much more ambitious Second Edition appeared between 1777 and 1784, in which a new essay on California informed readers, "The Californians are well-made and very strong. . . . They are extremely pusillanimous, inconstant, stupid, and even insensible." This general pattern of expansion was to continue for 200 years, and some of the editions still stand out, including the ninth, published between 1875 and 1889. "In this you get a lot more description of technology because we're in the industrial age," Passaro notes. This Ninth Edition also incorporates photography for the first time, and it was one of the most heavily pirated editions, because the relatively new photographic process made copying so much easier--copyright laws had not yet been enacted.

"Now this one, we use very heavily." says Passaro, pointing at a battered green edition. "It's one of our most famous editions--the eleventh, published in 1910 and 1911. What was really nice about it is that the articles are extremely well written, especially in the humanities." (The current Encyclopaedia Britannica's article about itself concurs, stating, "The rich leisurely prose of the Eleventh edition marked the pinnacle of literary style in the Britannica.")

Although the eleventh edition was largely written as well as printed in England, ownership of the company had passed into American hands by 1901. Sears, Roebuck and Company bought it in 1920, and during the following decade three more editions appeared. But accelerating growth in the world's stock of knowledge was bringing the company to a crisis point, and in 1932 it announced that it would no longer allow several years to elapse between updates but would revise the set annually.

This has occurred ever since, with two notable exceptions. Instead of releasing yet another printing of the 14th edition in 1974, Britannica, with enormous fanfare, announced the creation of a 15th edition. More than 4000 contributors from all over the globe rewrote the entire content. Mortimer Adler, who led the huge editorial undertaking, also devised a radical new structure for the self-proclaimed summary of all human learning. Rather than 24 volumes covering topics from A to Z, the 15th Edition would consist of ten volumes of shorter "ready reference" articles (the Micropaedia), 19 volumes of "knowledge in depth" (the Macropaedia), and a one-volume "Outline of Knowledge" (the Propaedia).

But the index was omitted, probably the most disliked aspect of the controversial new set. So in 1985 Britannica reorganized the books again, though for marketing reasons the set was called the 12th printing of the 15th edition rather than the 16th edition. "Refiling the copyright and changing all the sales material can run into millions of dollars," one executive explains. "If we can't really make hay out of such a change, it's not worth doing."

The version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that was printed this year is still known as the 15th edition, though its content resembles that of the 1974 product very little. "People know that it's very expensive to create an encyclopedia," says EB's president Joseph Esposito. But he says what they tend to overlook is the work and expense involved in maintaining an existing one. He says publishers of high-quality reference material typically figure they have to spend anywhere from 5 to 12 percent of their original development costs every year to update the material.

To get a better sense of just how many curves events throw at the hapless encyclopedia publisher, it's helpful to consult the American Library Association's "Reference Books Bulletin." The Chicago-based association which has regularly reviewed American encyclopedias since 1930, considers many elements, but one of the most important is what it terms currency. Examining the 1994 Collier's Encyclopedia, the ALA judged that the publisher had "done a good job of keeping up with recent changes. For example, there is mention of the floods in Illinois during the summer of 1993; ousted Haitian president Aristide's address to the United Nations in October 1993; the appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court; the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO in September 1993; the election of Jean Chretien as Canadian prime minister in November" However, the bulletin notes with disapproval, the Collier's "article on the telephone makes no mention of cellular phones; the latest advance discussed is the introduction of direct distance calling. . . . There is no reference to air bags in the list of safety features in "Automobile.' . . . "Civil Defense' still illustrates how to build and stock a basic fallout shelter."

The 1994 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana, the bulletin points out, lists 20-year-old population figures for Spain and refers to punched cards. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia failed to mentioned the Internet in its article on "Telecommunications." But Britannica was behind too. While judged by the ALA to be "the most scholarly of any general encyclopedia," it didn't include any discussion of AIDS in its 1994 "Sex and Sexuality" article, and its "Telecommunications Systems" piece "refers to "push-button dialing now being introduced."'

The encyclopedist's task is further complicated by the nature of printed material. Indiscriminate changes and additions to the content of a document can require that almost every page be redesigned and reprinted, as type is shifted from one sheet to succeeding ones. Instead of incurring that enormous expense every year publishers choose to change only some sections. The new material can then be "interleaved" with the unchanged portions. How do they choose which pages to revise? "That's one of the editors' challenges," Anne Long, Britannica executive director for electronic products explains. "If we've got 4,000 or 5,000 pages budgeted to be revised in a given year [out of about 32,000], which ones are going to get the works?"

World events can disrupt this planning process. EB officials say that when the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989 and Germany was reunited the company decided to amend articles in the 1990 printing even though the cost would far exceed what had been budgeted. "Not only were the changes made about Germany in the article on Germany," says a spokesman. "But throughout the set any references to an existing country of East Germany or West Germany, those all had to be changed--and the maps. Altogether almost 5,000 pages were affected."

Even more routine updates have surprising consequences. "One of the nasty little secrets of the print encyclopedia," confides editor in chief McHenry, "is that if, as we do, you decide at the outset that there are certain categories that you will cover exhaustively--say presidents of the United States or Nobel Prize winners--then you can anticipate that every year there's going to be an influx of new articles. However, the size of the set does not change." He explains that when an article is added, something must be cut. "It typically is another article of roughly the same size, from that same general vicinity. Not necessarily on that page, but from one nearby in order to minimize the number of pages that are in work. Over the years, as more and more Nobel Prize winners and presidents and British prime ministers and all that sort of thing pop up, you find yourself sitting on a pile of articles that used to be in the set but have been taken out--not because you wanted to or they're somehow less useful, but simply because something had to go." This is one reason that when it first began to dawn on him that the encyclopedia might one day shed its print straitjacket and take some far more fluid electronic form, the prospect struck him as being "just heaven. Valhalla."

Britannica's two electronic products--a CD-ROM and the on-line version that's accessible through the Internet-- have only become available within the past year. And the online version isn't yet being sold to home users.

Some observers believe Britannica took too long to develop these products. In February 1994 Forbes went so far as to call Britannica "CD ROM's first big victim," bluntly declaring that its tardiness in embracing the new technology had already "wrecked" the 200-year-old company. The central point of the article seemed indisputable: Britannica had missed the boat that was carrying several other encyclopedia companies to fame and at least the prospect of fortune. Certainly Britannica's financial situation had been grim for some time, though Forbes wasn't privy to the numbers. According to an offering memorandum prepared last month by the New York investment firm of Lazard Freres & Company, Britannica's net income turned negative in 1992, the year the company loast $4.6 million. The next year it lost $15 million.

But the Forbes article also gave the erroneous impression that Britannica had turned its back on the electronic realm. What really happened was a lot more complicated, as Harold Kester tells the story.

The 48-year-old Kester, who one recent morning was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned "Innovate or Die (and death is not an option)," is the central star in Britannica's La Jolla-based "Advanced Technology Group." A math major who began his career in the engineering software business, Kester was involved with distributing information electronically by the mid-80s, putting the Books in Print database onto a CD-ROM. His company "produced the fifth CD-ROM that was published in the U.S., as far as we know.It cost us $10,000 to get it mastered in Japan." Customs officials almost wouldn't let Kester bring the mysterious object back into this country. By the fall of 1985 the company had added some digitized pictures of book covers to their product, making it one of the first "multimedia" disks ever produced.

When Kester mentions "multimedia" his voice conveys some disgust for the hype that's come to surround the word in the computer world. Far more exciting to him was what he learned when he started watching people use the new technology. "The general consumer is not an information-retrieval expert. They probably don't know Boolean logic. They often misspell words." And they often don't hear well. He remembers one person who'd heard about Oedipus Rex on the radio and asked the clerk in a bookstore for How to Press Rats. Kester's team vowed to build some intelligence into the search software, and in 1988 it began marketing Smartrieve, which does more than simply retrieve text that exactly matches the words typed in.

Right after this product was launched Kester learned that a San Diego-based company, Education Systems, that developed computerized curricula wanted to link a reference work to its network of classroom terminals. The company and Britannica were already negotiating, and they wanted the most consumer-friendly retrieval software available for the schoolchildren. Kester's group won a contract to adapt Smartrieve to an encyclopedia, although they were to start with Compton's. Back in the 1950s Comptons had been a major encyclopedia publisher, but it had fallen on hard times and had been bought by Britannica. By the late 1980s, Compton's was being used by salesmen as a starter set for children who would later "grow into" Britannica.

Putting Compton's on a disk in no way threatened Britannica's print sales. Moreover, Compton's was already geared to schoolchildren, and it contained only 9 million words rather than 44 million. Getting it to fit on a compact disk posed no serious technical challenges, even though Education Systems wanted to add thousands of electronic appetizers to the informational banquet, such as a snippet from Bach's Brandenburg concertos, a clip of Richard Nixon denying his crookedness, and animation showing how a skeleton moves. The disk came out in April 1988. A text-only version of Grolier's had come out in 1985, but the Compton's disk was the world's first multimedia encyclopedia.

The disk was immediately popular, yet Britannica didn't rush to put out a CD-ROM version of its main encyclopedia. Kester contends that the company did take one of the first steps toward that end within a few months of the Compton's debut, when his team was commissioned to develop an electronic index to the main set. "You could ask it a question and it would tell you where [to look for an answer] in the print set," he explains. Kester, whose company would be sold to Britannica in 1990, believes the encyclopedia publisher did recognize "that electronic publishing was in its future. Nobody knew in the late 1980s how to sell it or what the business model would be. But they were absolutely making the commitment to understand this medium."

There was an obvious technical problem: Britannica's enormous size. As roomy as a compact disk is--holding almost 700 million bytes of information--it's not big enough for the Big Mama of the reference world. Its 44 million words could be compressed to about 130 million bytes, but the index and other electronic overhead would take up another 810 million bytes. And that was with none of the frills that had so charmed buyers of the CD-ROM Compton's or its competitors, including Microsoft's Encarta: no byte-greedy music or pictures or animation.

Of course girth can always be squeezed and trimmed if the spirit is willing. But many in the Britannica establishment were horrified by the vision of their majestic print product, for which buyers routinely paid $1,500, being delivered on a little plastic and aluminum platter that when it holds music is worth $15 to $20. The February 1994 Forbes article reported, "Several former executives who recently left the company say Britannica didn't want to risk offending its powerful sales force. . . . On CD-ROM, Britannica could have been priced much lower than the paper version. But the lower the price, the lower the selling commissions." Joseph Esposito, Britannica's president, now acknowledges, "There's no doubt that up until a certain period of time a lot of decisions were being made to defer to the direct sales force. That was true."

But, he adds, by the end of 1993--two months before the Forbes article was printed--dramatic changes had already rocked Britannica. "The real story that the article missed was that the preceding September Britannica's CEO of the last 20 years retired. Peter Norton became our new CEO. And within three months 50 officers and directors of Britannica were out the door." On January 1, 1994, the company was reorganized, and it was then that Esposito took over. That year Britannica would lose $3.8 million.

"There is no aspect of our operation that has not been changed somewhat," Esposito declares. "We've completely reorganized the sales organization. We've changed the whole marketing model. There's no cold calling. We used to advertise on television and people then called up, and we'd take those leads and try to sell them [encyclopedias]. But you could never make money on such a shotgun approach to the marketplace. People who don't have a certain degree of affluence, people who are not interested in education, people who are not themselves college educated, who don't have aspirations for their children--these probably are not strong candidates for Britannica. But the television advertising picked up everybody. So we cut that way back. We do much more with targeted direct mailings now. Half of our business is now at counters and at trade shows."

A cumbersome two-disk version of Britannica, aimed primarily at publishers and other corporate users, was introduced in the fall of 1993, and by the end of the year Esposito told Kester's team to create a single, streamlined CD-ROM for the broader consumer market. The team eliminated some obscure, rarely used searching capacity from the earlier product and did some other minor tinkering, and last July Britannica began shipping the single disc, with a price tag of $995.

According to Esposito, the sales force now says the CD-ROM "is their favorite thing. They love it. It's a growing percentage of our sales every month, and most of the customers are buying CD-ROM in combination with print. They're buying packages"--paying a higher price to get the disk in addition to the books.

Why would anyone want both? That's not hard to understand when you see them side by side. Looking something up in the print volume is a sensual experience. The fine-grained paper slides like satin underneath your fingertips. The print, though small, is crisp. You can curl up with a volume in an armchair and nibble on the information. But if you want the answer to a question such as "Why does the moon loom larger on the horizon than it does high in the sky?" it isn't obvious where you're supposed to look in those hefty print volumes. Yet typing this question into the CD-ROM version yields a list of articles that might be relevant, and you're only a mouse click away from the scholarly explanation embedded in the essay on "Human Perception."

"I find I ask different questions of each medium and I use it for different reasons," says Esposito. "Now let me be very clear about something. We're completely agnostic as to what people use. If someone wants to read a 200-page article on China from their screen, go right ahead. Not our problem. If somebody else wants to answer a question like "Why is the sky blue?' from the print set, have a good time. It might take them six months to find it. But that is not our problem. Our problem is to make it available in whatever form people want it."

Well before the Britannica CD hit the street, Esposito and other key figures within the company had become convinced that people would soon want to get encyclopedic information in yet another manner-- by having their personal computer connect with a remote information server. Kester's longtime partner Bob Clarke, who's been in the computer business for 35 years, says he realized back in 1991 that with the growing power of personal computers future encyclopedia customers could tap into a data base unlimited by size that could be updated constantly as well as linked to a staggering array of other information resources.

By early '92, Kester's team had marshaled their arguments about the future of encyclopedias and shipped them off to Chicago. Meanwhile the University of Chicago, had expressed interest in offering the encyclopedia over its campus-wide computer system. "We started to explore that and we discovered that it was going to cost us a couple of hundred thousand dollars to get it running," says Esposito. "But then if we wanted to sell it to [another university], it would also cost us a couple of hundred thousand dollars to get it set up there, and so on. We would have this big cost every time we wanted to do it. We found out that, at best, we could get a payback after 10 or 12 years."

Esposito asked Kester to investigate whether a network-based product could be developed once, then resold over and over again. "Harold now disappears and the project is in limbo," Esposito recalls. But some time later, I get a phone call from Harold, really agitated. He says, 'Did you ever hear of the Internet?'" Esposito says he answered, "Who? What?"

His ignorance wasn't surprising. The Internet had come into being in 1969 when certain government and private agencies contrived a way to connect their in-house computer networks with each other via phone lines, but until a few years ago it was almost exclusively the province of people armed with great stocks of both computer expertise and patience. To do anything on it, users had to type commands in the dense, daunting language of the Unix operating system. And what streamed across their screens when they connected was bare, unadorned text. In 1990 a Geneva-based networking expert conceived the World Wide Web, which vastly simplified the task of viewing, linking, and electronically publishing documents, and by late '92 software tools for using it were proliferating. Kester's team saw this as the way to link paying customers and Britannica.

The alternative--establishing a proprietary network--would have been expensive, complex, and a serious diversion from the company's main business. Yet two and a half years ago, no one was sure the Internet would be a reliable delivery system. It was evolving almost daily, and no one was doing business over it--in fact, a self-righteous anticommercialism pervaded the user community.

Small wonder that Britannica's management greeted the idea with less than wild enthusiasm. Undeterred, Kester's group proceeded to develop the idea, and by May of 1993, management had come around. That October, another key component fell into place as the Mosaic "Web-browsing" software became available to users of Windows and Macintosh. Armed with such software, personal-computer users could suddenly view World Wide Web documents in their full glory, with headlines and images and various fonts. Rather than typing mind-numbing computerese, a user could simply place the cursor on an icon or highlighted word and click their mouse.

The task of finding a good "search engine" for the on-line product also turned out to be painless. Smartrieve wasn't an option; Britannica had sold off its Compton's New Media subsidiary to the Tribune Publishing Company for $57 million dollars, and the Tribune company got to keep the search software. But Smartrieve hadn't been designed for a client-server architecture anyway. Kester's team decided to simply refine a database searching tool developed by the Wide Area Information Servers. In February 1994, less than a year after committing to the idea, Britannica was on the Internet.

But the Britannica staff still had work to do. Most of the articles had been converted to electronic form, beginning in the late 60s and early 70s, but gaping holes remained in the database. "None of the photographs were digitized and none of the illustrations," says Neil Holman, Britannica's vice president for product development. "Many things which might look like they're just characters on a keyboard are not." Greek characters, music notation, chemical notation, mathematical symbols--all had been treated as if they were artwork, stripped into the text. At one point Esposito had wondered if they could get away with just putting the text up on-line. "I said we couldn't do it," says Holman. "There's too much meaning lost if you drop those things that are essential. So the editors were assigned to decide what was essential."

The editors also scrutinized Britannica's 23,000 drawings and illustrations and decided that about 3000 of them added indispensable information. But they couldn't simply be scanned and fed into the computer. "We tried that," says Anne Long, Britannica's executive director for electronic products. "But we just hated the results. Our black and white line art is very finely done. It's very detailed." What looks elegant on paper appeared almost indecipherable on a computer screen, so almost all of the 3000 targeted illustrations had to be redone.

Last September, Britannica began selling the online service in the form of a yearly license available to college campuses. The price depends upon the number of students. A campus with 2,500 pays $2,500, one with 10,000 pays $7,000, and so on. The prices for other markets--public libraries, corporations, home users--are now being decided, and Esposito says they'll be announced before the end of the year.

If you have full Internet access, you can already see the Britannica Online in action by asking to join the company's "Early Experience Program" (send an e-mail to sales@eb.com), a market research program which that gives home users at least 90 days of free access in exchange for answering a series of questions. When you connect you'll see a bold image of the earth against the blackness of space pop into view next to a vibrant red banner emblazoned with the "Britannica Online." One click takes the user to a search box into which can be typed anything from a single word to several sentences. For all inquiries expressed in "natural language," the search engine eliminates all "stop words"--"the," "a," "of," "more," and other expressions so common that their inclusion would bog down the search. Then it checks its index to find where every remaining word appears throughout the entire Britannica corpus and makes a list of its findings, ranking them in order of their likely relevance. Asking "What year did Disney first create Mickey Mouse?" generates a list containing hundreds of Britannica entries--every article containing the word "year," "Disney," "first," "create," "Mickey," "mouse," or any combination of the six. But at the top of the list sits an eight-line entry titled "Mickey Mouse" that provides a succinct answer.

The differences in the content of the online and print encyclopedias can be hard to discern, but they're substantial. Most of those articles that were squeezed out of the print set when Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela were shoehorned in have been resuscitated. So have about eleven articles from previous editions that Britannica has deemed to classics. "These are all articles that have been superseded in some sense, but retain their interest either for their literary quality or their historical value or just the fact that there was this wonderful coincidence of time and subject and author," explains editor in chief Robert McHenry. For example, Albert Einstein wrote an essay on "Space-Time" for the 13th edition that was replaced with information from later authorities. But now Einstein's view of the subject can be consulted again, as can H.L. Mencken's discussion of the American language, Chesterton's loving portrait of Dickens, Freud's summary of psychoanalysis. McHenry says that roughly 200 articles fall into this "classics" category, and eventually all of them will be added to the electronic pool.

It isn't just old material that's available on-line and not in the print set. McHenry says a handful of brand new articles that haven't yet found their way into the bound volumes can now be accessed electronically. And Britannica has commissioned about 3300 new articles: one about every single county in the United States and an additional 300 or so about academic institutions. On-line users also can comb Britannica's Books of the Year collection--the annual summaries that update older print sets and contain more ephemeral material than would ever make it into the main encyclopedia. Want a precis of "grunge"? The word appears nowhere in the main Britannica, but the 1994 Book of the Year provides a discourse in three separate locations.

Because Britannica Online's database is part of the Internet, users can be led to other far-flung resources in the information web. More than 1000 such links have been incorporated. At the end of the article on "Chicago", for example, you find three "Related Internet Resources": the "Chicago Mosaic" home page, "other Chicago information", and Chicago el route information maintained by the University of Paris. A few clicks of the mouse take the user to options ranging from the date and hours of Venetian Night to the current fees for adopting a dog from the city.

The online Britannica is also being revised every four months, four times more often than the printed set. But editor-in-chief McHenry says he'd like to be able to respond instantly to "major events that would necessitate some sort of revision, Obituaries are an obvious example. We don't want to be a newspaper, but there are certain kinds of information where if you're not saying what is the case, then you're saying something that's factually incorrect." He adds that the next version of the search engine may allow an "incremental build"--taking out a single article, rewriting it, and replacing it without having to reparse the entire database and rebuild the index.

McHenry says, "The encyclopedia's job has always been, as we understand it, to inform its users of the current state of learning. But there's a built-in frustration with trying to reflect the current state of learning when you know there's always a lapse of time." He offers this example. "I was just signing a letter to a professor at Yale, asking him to write a new article on Tito, the late president of the late Yugoslavia. Let's suppose he decides he'll do it. We're asking him to get us a manuscript by next March. He'll start writing that sometime this summer. He'll finish it in the fall or winter and send it to us. At some point, he will stop looking at the research materials, even before he finishes writing the article. So there's the end of its currency in terms of the latest word on the secret life of Tito. We'll get that article next March and it'll be another year before it gets into print--at which point it'll be a year and a half away from the journal research. And there it will stay until we can get round to it again."

Obviously, being on-line shortens the lag between when a manuscript is finished and when the public has access to it. But McHenry also ponts out that "the same tools that permit us to get the article out on-line may also make it easier for us to keep the author in touch with his own work; to keep his hand, as it were, in the ongoing revision." Editors could commission authors to review and update the articles they write.

"We've been having all these visions and we don't know what to do with them," McHenry admits. "We're now getting e-mail from users. Starting from zero, [the volume of mail has] been growing at roughly a geometric rate for the last four or five months." Some point out what they believe are errors in the text; others mention additional points which they believe should be added. "Right now we're saying, very politely, 'Thanks very much. We'll attend to this just as quickly as we possibly can.'"

He suggests that it will take some time for the Britannica staff to learn not only how best to exploit the potential but also to avoid the pitfalls of the on-line medium. "One danger is to say, 'Well, the article doesn't need to be cut off at 300 words because that's the size of the hole on the page. Now the article can be as long as we want. In fact, they can all be as long as we want, can't they?' Yet the constraints that the print medium forced upon us were a discipline. They made you write a really artful summary of some subject in a brief space. It would be a shame to lose the art just because you could now have 2000 words instead of 300."

He says another useful discipline imposed by print was that very lapse of time between the latest scholarly word and the time an article reached print. A lapse "is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it's exactly the time you need to exercise a little judgment. And another of the dangers of the new medium is to rush not into print, but into bytes too precipitously, without taking time for events to mature and for [informed] judgments to be made."

Is there also a danger of factual errors creeping in if the lag time shortens? McHenry says traditional standards are being used for editing, fact-checking, and verifying all Britannica articles, yet he can't resist that the very nature of an error somehow seems different in the print and the on-line versions. In the print process, one factual error, one instance of ambiguity or inconsistency "becomes at the end of the publishing process 150,000 or 200,000 instances, each likely to mislead or disappoint any reader who happens upon it," McHenry quotes from the Britannica stylebook. "That's a fairly chastening thought--the fact that in the printed encyclopedia, you can't commit one error. Any error comes in multiples of 100,000. How does that translate into online? Well, we can pretend it's one error instead of 100,000, because it's just that one file sitting there. In a sense, they don't seem to mean as much. And there's also the fact that we can fix the online error tomorrow."

With the disappearance of any restrictions on its size limit, Britannica could also greatly expand its on-line multimedia components, though this doesn't appear to be imminent. "We haven't really put our emphasis on multimedia development for a number of reasons," says Esposito. "Not the least of which is that we think what we primarily have to offer is our comprehensiveness and authority. And that derives more from the text of Britannica. We have nothing against multimedia, don't misunderstand me. But if you're sitting there with a fairly small encyclopedia and you're trying to find a way to sell it, you add pictures and sound right away. If you're sitting there with a massive encyclopedia what you try to do is to make that massive text more useful through electronics."

So Kester's team is continuing to beef up the searching capacities. "We have just begun to apply the knowledge that's in the corpora of Britannica to make the search system smarter," Kester says. "To give you a little example: how do you know when something is a phrase? Well, Britannica owns the Merriam-Webster third international unabridged dictionary. And because we own them, I can go and incorporate their word list into our phrase dictionary and thus stand a better chance of detecting phrases. Or another example: Somebody has gone through the Britannica and read it and created a database of every person, place, and thing. This was a research project that was started about ten years ago with no idea in particular of why they wanted to do it." Suddenly that project has utility. If the search engine recognizes that "Wichita Falls" is a separate entity, for instance, then it need not offer the searcher every article containing every use of the word "fall" or "falls."

Esposito believes Britannica's future depends on building markets for the electronic encyclopedia. Say you're Princeton University, and you want your 10,000 students to be able to use the Encyclopaedia Britannica. You can buy the print set for $2000 and store the volumes in the campus library, but how many students will actually use it there? As an alternative, you can pipe the Britannica Online into the room of every single student for $10,000. "Is that an increase in price or is it a decrease?" Esposito asks. Then he answers his own question by asserting that the online product is "probably the most economical way to get a reference database that there is."

Six months after the on-line product was introduced that pitch didn't appear to be dazzling universities. At the end of March Esposito disclosed that only ten American campuses and one European school had signed up. Yet a month later "several more colleges" had signed on, and he declared the response rate was greater than expected. "College libraries typically have to wait until the following year's budget to buy a new product, i.e., they have to plan the purchase. We will have more than a million college students using BOL by the end of the year. We are too stately to say we are ecstatic."

In any case, Britannica's survival won't rest upon how the institutional sales of Britannica Online go. "Britannica is a consumer products company," says Esposito. "Over time, Britannica Online will become the core Britannica encyclopedia." Apparently he's depending on home users embracing the on-line product. If they don't, the company isn't likely to reach its 250th birthday.

At the moment, Britannica can report that consumers at least seem curious. Electronic-products director Anne Long says she's felt "enormous pressure" from people wanting the on-line access. "I come in every morning, and there are between 30 and 50 e-mails. And half of them are 'Can I get this?'"

Esposito says the answer to that question will be yes before the end of the year. Users will probably pay by the month or year for unlimited access. But Britannica spokesmen aren't yet disclosing how much a subscription will cost, though if the company's history of pricing its other products is any guide access won't be cheap. Prices for the print set currently range from about $1000 to $2500, depending upon where you buy it and what you get along with it. And the CD ROM goes for $995, even though other CD-ROM encyclopedia's--Compton's, Encarta, Grolier--sell for anywhere from $60 to nothing (when bundled with computer hardware).

Esposito's response is that innexpensive print encyclopedias have always been around. "Yet the print [Britannica] set, in its sheer magnitude, its august size, subliminally communicates the notions of comprehensiveness and authority. The real cost of the product has less to do with the medium it's published on and more to do with the ability to amortize the development costs. If you priced Britannica at what you can buy Encarta for, there are just not enough households in America to pay for the development. Now I like Encarta. I like Compton's. I like Grolier. These are great products. But what we do does not really compete with them. The only thing Britannica shares with those other products is the word 'encyclopedia.'"

Of course Britannica now must also sell itself to outside investors, as the April 4 announcement of the need for "new sources of capital" revealed. Some of the news reports on the company's financial situation have suggested it's both unprecedented and somehow disgraceful, but it's really more like a tradition. Time after time over the past two centuries Britannica's publishers have run short of operating funds, sought more, found them--several times the whole operation changed hands--and then rebounded.

Esposito says that not long ago he was contacted by a man who was organizing a trade show about doing business on the Internet. The man said he wanted Esposito to be his keynote speaker because he'd asked around and had been told that Esposito was the leading expert on that topic in the country. Yet Esposito wasn't laughing as he recounted how he responded. "I said, 'Let me tell you something. If I'm the leading expert on doing business on the Internet, we are all in very serious trouble!' What we have been able to do is to develop a revenue stream already. Not everybody's been able to do that. But we don't know what we're doing! We are making it up as we go along."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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