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Posted On April 3, 2000
New reference content and a complete Web site redesign have been announced for the free public reference collection site ( Named after the character in Melville's story "Bartleby the Scrivener," whose job was to copy and proofread documents, the site now offers searchable access to a modern reference collection plus classic reference works and literature. New works added include the Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, which is not yet available in hard cover, and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, third edition (1996), published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

" is an outstanding partner for bringing the Columbia Encyclopedia to the Internet," said Clare Wellnitz, director of subsidiary rights for Columbia University Press. "With 24-hour, free online access to the complete, unabridged encyclopedia, delivers an invaluable service for any student, researcher, or family looking for fast and easy access to essential and interesting facts."

Three additional reference works just added are Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, providing over 35,000 synonyms; Simpson's Quotations, highlighting the great quotes from 1950-1988 and providing about 10,000 quotes from nearly 4,000 sources; and The American Heritage Book of English Usage, a guide to the proper use of grammar, style, diction, word formation, and even e-mail etiquette.

David Jost, vice president and director of electronic reference publishing for the trade and reference division of Houghton Mifflin Company, said, "Houghton Mifflin is proud to partner with to bring these essential reference works online as part of's comprehensive reference collection."

The site had previously offered such classic works as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (the ninth edition from 1901); Strunk's Elements of Style; Fowler's the King's English, second edition; Emily Post's Etiquette; the Cambridge History of English & American Literature (all 18 volumes of the valuable research tool, with more than 11,000 pages, as published 1907-1921); six classic poetry anthologies; and Fannie Farmer's Cookbook.

The redesign of the site provides a completely new user interface, an organization that accommodates the growing range of resources, and vastly improved and faster search capabilities. There are summaries of each book, concise biographies—complete with pictures—of each author featured in the online library. Enhanced navigational tools and extensive cross-referencing between works make it easy for users to locate specific passages and references. (The site uses Thunderstone's Webinator as its search engine.) Also new is the "Bartleby Weekly" feature, providing a weekly update of new content additions, and the Bartleby Bookstore, linking e-commerce to the site by providing a market for users to purchase books and related materials through a link to

 " makes publishing history today," said Steven van Leeuwen, publisher and founder of "As the only publisher combining the best of both contemporary and classic reference works, we have created the most comprehensive public reference library ever published on the Web—a collection that will grow massively in the coming months." began as a personal research experiment of van Leeuwen in 1993 and within a year published the first classic book on the Web, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It was a hobby for van Leeuwen, who at the time was in Academic Information Systems at Columbia University. His passion for books and his vision kept him working on the project, which moved off the university's server and became in 1997 and then in September 1999 became an incorporated company. The small entrepreneurial operation based in New York city now has five full-time employees and two part timers.

John Kibler, formerly a corporate lawyer and friend of van Leeuwen, joined the company in 1999 as president. He spoke enthusiastically about the goals of the company and the success it has had. The site has now grown to about 200,000 Web pages of searchable data, and there are ambitious plans for expansion. Though he would not provide any specifics as to publishers or reference works to be added, he said there would be some important announcements forthcoming as they worked to add the best possible current and classic resources. The site recently logged 265,000 page impressions in one day, representing perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 visitors. The site will always have a free model, he says, and currently makes money through its banner ads and from the sale of books.

Books are added to the database in SGML format (using off-shore double key data entry) using a unified data structure and then presented on the Web in HTML. The company has been approached by a number of other companies about doing the texts as e-books, but management has decided to wait a bit for the standards issues to settle down, instead concentrating on adding to the site. Kibler admitted the company probably seemed like an appetizing acquisition prospect and said they might look to raise money later.

The tag line on the site reads "Great Books Online," but Kibler said that they are really creating a database of "The Great Book," or one giant information source that is cross-referenced and searchable. He also noted that, in contrast to other digital book projects, provides a reference library that is carefully chosen for quality, edited, and proofed, is fully searchable, and, best of all, is free. He said they have had a great response from budget-strapped schools and universities, which have welcomed the site as a free public library.

With the addition of contemporary reference works to the wealth of classic content, and the interface and search improvements, the site becomes a first choice for access to quality reference material.

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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