You might think the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica is a dinosaur, pushed out of existence by free web-based resources such as Wikipedia and Google. But the publisher of the centuries old print publication (the first edition was published in 1768: http://corporate.britannica.com/company_info.html) has been quietly reinventing itself to stay relevant in the digital age—opening its content up to online access, leveraging web-based tools like widgets, blogs, RSS feeds, user comments, and forums, and even providing a daily Tweet on Twitter and search access via mobile devices. This is not your father’s encyclopedia any more.
In late April, the company officially announced its new WebShare program, which has opened the Britannica site (www.britannica.com) for free access to web publishers and permits free links to full-text entries. Bloggers, webmasters, online journalists, and "anyone else who publishes regularly" on the internet can now get free subscriptions to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. And, perhaps more importantly, sites can provide links for their readers to Britannica articles and web surfers who click on a link get the article in its entirety.
Anyone interested in participating in the WebShare initiative can apply for a free subscription at http://signup.eb.com or get more information at http://britannicanet.com. Apparently the site was quickly swamped with requests for free subscriptions. Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications for the company, says they did their best to process the requests quickly and found that most of the people applying were qualified and received the subscriptions. The company has already granted thousands of free subscriptions. An FAQ on the site clarifies that this "does not include Web sites mainly dedicated to e-commerce or those whose postings are short and aphoristic by design."
"It’s good business for us and a benefit to people who publish on the Net," said Britannica president Jorge Cauz. "The level of professionalism among Web publishers has really improved, and we want to recognize that by giving access to the people who are shaping the conversations about the issues of the day. Britannica belongs in the middle of those conversations."
It’s also a way to make sure the company stays viable in a web-based environment. Cauz says that web publishers can link to as many Britannica articles as they like. Hopefully, surfers who link to read an article—and are then presented with a list of related articles—will see the value of their own Britannica subscription. The company optimistically says that "with many Web publishers using our products and sharing their contents with our readers, we expect to see more people subscribing."
The company also emphasizes its vetted, reliable content—as opposed to the uncertain status and changeable nature of content on a site like Wikipedia. "We have a great site with a lot of useful, reliable, and high-quality information, and we’d like more people to see it, use it, and talk about it. We’d like to see Britannica used more widely in discussions and conversations about important issues. Today, Web publishers are among the foremost people driving public discussions, so we’d like to have our products in their hands."
The company is providing special tools, such as widgets and clusters of topical articles related to current events that are designed to make it easy for online publishers to find and use Britannica material on their sites. And the company promises additional features in the months ahead.
There’s even a video (posted to YouTube) explaining how to place an Encyclopaedia Britannica widget on a blog or website (www.youtube.com/watch?v=soeeu_H_KxY) and another explaining how to link to a Britannica article from within a blog or website (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZA-Y0wrQvQA).
Crowning the company’s latest achievements, two Britannica sites recently won coveted CODiE Awards from the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA; all of the winners are listed at www.siia.net/codies/2008/winners.asp). Britannica Online School Edition (http://info.eb.com/Product_OSE.htm), its K–12 school site, was named Best Education Reference or Search Service, while its main blog (www.britannica.com/blogs) took the top spot in the Best Corporate Blog category.
In case you’re wondering, the company still sells its print encyclopedia as a 32-volume set. The 2007 edition is $1,395. It also publishes the 2008 Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate CD or DVD-ROM. A 1-year subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online costs $69.95. There’s a 7-day free trial available.
By the way, here’s a snippet of encyclopedic history I hadn’t remembered, which I found while browsing the Britannica corporate site: In 1981, under an agreement with Mead Data Central, the first digital version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was created for the LexisNexis service. Britannica also created the first multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia, Compton’s MultiMedia Encyclopedia, in 1989. While the media of publication have changed, the company says its basic mission is "the same as it was in 1768: to be the worldwide leader in reference, education, and learning."
For a more open historical discussion (though, of course, subject to revision by anyone) of the company’s history, difficulties over the years, criticisms, and some recent controversies, see the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britannica.