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Fathom This: Academic and Cultural Institutions Partner To Create Interactive Knowledge Company
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Posted On April 10, 2000
Like the corporate world, the academic arena has been abuzz with how to operate successfully in the Internet era and take advantage of the Net's global reach and interactive potential. While universities have worked to maintain high academic standards and make sense of their educational policies and Internet initiatives, they have watched as upstart companies stepped up to offer online learning on the Internet. Now, six prestigious academic and cultural institutions have partnered to establish a new company to launch an authoritative site (http://www.fathom.com) that wants to provide more than distance learning. Fathom aims to become a "main street" for knowledge and education, serving a worldwide audience of business and individual users.

Ann Kirschner, hired by Columbia University last year to lead the Morningside Ventures unit in exploring profitable educational opportunities on the Net, serves as the president and CEO of Fathom. Besides Columbia, the group's founding partners are The London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, and The New York Public Library. Columbia University provided the initial seed capital.

In a telephone interview, Kirschner said that these institutions were sought out during the year-long development process as representing the best learning institutions, and for offering visionary leaders and international appeal. She would not discuss any details of the business arrangements for the new company, but noted that the intellectual capital of the group is priceless, and represents the strength of the venture. She also stressed the importance of including universities, museums, and libraries, since learning occurs both inside and outside of classrooms. Additional institutions are expected to join the consortium.

According to information on the site, three features will distinguish Fathom from conventional education and information sites. First, "powerful explore and search facilities" will give users access to unique knowledge resources of its partner institutions through articles, lectures, and interviews. Second, users can participate in provocative forums and discussions on a wide range of topics, led by academics, curators, and other experts. Third, the site will provide access to thousands of online courses and related knowledge products, such as books, videos, CD-ROMs, periodicals, and academic excursions.

Kirschner said: "Today, most initiatives by educational institutions are focused on courses. Courses are important, and courses for distance learning will be one of the offerings provided by some partners through Fathom. But learning is not limited to the classroom, and the many other types of content provided through Fathom will provide a more complete and accessible context for knowledge. We believe that Fathom will define the transformation of the online learning category into a broader interactive knowledge marketplace."

According to the press release, examples of Fathom content currently in development include:

  • An oral history research project that includes 7,000 in-depth personal interviews, conducted over 50 years, with leaders from business, politics, and the arts, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Dorothy Parker, Nikita Khrushchev, and Jimmy Stewart (from Columbia University)
  • Excerpts from the field journals of a pre-eminent anthropologist of the 20th century, William Duncan Strong (1899-1962) (from the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives at the National Museum of Natural History)
  • An overview of the provocative new science of astrobiology, which brings together molecular life sciences, space exploration, planetary science, and the search for extraterrestrials, by astronomer and editor Dr. Simon Mitton (from Cambridge University Press)
  • A talk on "The Weightless Economy," the shift from a world of manufacturing to a world of weightless services, by economist Professor Danny Quah (from the London School of Economics and Political Science)
  • Multimedia presentations that bring to life treasured objects, from the Magna Carta to the Lindisfarne Gospels (from The British Library)
  • A collection of over 54,000 photographic views of New York City that mark the development of the city, its architectural achievements, transportation system, and ethnic and cultural diversity (from The New York Public Library)
Though just announced to the public, Fathom already has a staff of 30 people, half in administration and half in production. The company also announced a distinguished board of directors and an Academic Council of leading scholars and researchers that will monitor academic and editorial integrity. Kirschner would not speculate on when the first content would be available.

Central to Fathom will be a wealth of free content usually only available at the participating institutions, with additional content available for a fee. The company will not be involved in the actual warehousing and shipping of books and other materials. Kirschner said they would soon be announcing the e-commerce partners that would handle this.

Fathom will cover a wide range of subjects such as business, law, economics, social sciences, medicine, computer science and technology, the arts, journalism, and physics. Kirschner noted that in the first phase of its development, Fathom would work on integrating the offerings from the partners, but that they would then look to expand the content to include licensing of outside commercial and scientific publications. The British Library, one of the founding institutions, is also one of the largest document suppliers in the world.

Kirschner said that the site would be experimenting with offering different ways for users to interact with experts on the site. One example might be a faculty member leading a discussion on a particular topic using threaded message groups. The site also planned to offer various collaborative tools that would allow users to work together on educational topics of interest. The goal is to allow users to delve as deeply into a subject as they wish, hence the fathom metaphor.

Kirschner is no stranger to the dot-com world. Prior to working on Fathom, she headed up new media for the National Football League (NFL), overseeing the introduction of new programming ventures in emerging technologies, such as interactive television and the Internet. She is the founder of NFL.COM, superbowl.com, and Team NFL on America Online. Her diverse career includes stints as a lecturer in Victorian literature at Princeton, as an editor and freelance writer, and as president of a telecommunications and interactive consulting firm. She also co-founded Satellite Broadcast Networks and PrimeTime 24 where she became the first executive vice president of sales and marketing of both companies. So, with her strengths in interactive media and marketing, an obviously entrepreneurial spirit, and an understanding of both the academic and e-business worlds, she seems to be a strong leader for this ambitious undertaking. Working with this diverse group of participating institutions and competing to make Fathom a leading online destination, she will also need her best collaborative and creative skills.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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