The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768- ) is the oldest encyclopedia in English and the one with the greatest authority, even now. It was once the largest, but now the Wikipedia is larger. It first appeared in Edinburgh in 1768. It now comes out of Chicago.
It currently appears in three forms: in print, on computer disc and on the Web. Print makes the most money, but its days as a printed book are numbered.
Britannica has been slow to change with the times and its fortunes are sinking.
What happened? In 1993 came the first blow: Microsoft came out with Encarta — the old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia put on disc. It was so cheap that many people got it along with their new computer. Then came the Web, then Google and then the Wikipedia. Who looks up anything offline any more?
Britannica was quick to get on the Web – they were there by 1994. But it was shovelware and you had to pay to see it (it was free only for a while). In the past 12 years little has changed. It has improved only around the edges, like putting icing on a hard, dry piece of bread.
What Britannica must do:
It needs to forget about printed encyclopedias. Its future is on the Web or nowhere.
That said, it needs to rework its content for the Web. It will not be easy, but if it does not do it, it will disappear and go the way of the Victrola.
The Britannica has over 55 million words and 120,000 articles. That comes to something less than 500 words an article. A very good size for a web page. But some articles go on for hundreds of pages! That will not work. Not even with outlines.
The content needs to be cut up into short articles of 200-500 words each. Every single one. Even “China”. Even “Europe, History of”. Yes. And each article must stand on its own and be valuable in its own right. For the 500-word articles to work the long-winded prose will have to go.
Of course, “Europe, History of” cannot be completely covered in 500 words or less. But depth must be provided by links not page length. That is important. Page length is what makes the Britannica so hard to use online.
An article should provide different levels of depth:
- first sentence
- first paragraph
- highlighted words
- the entire article
- links for those who want to go deeper
Britannica has outlines: for each of its longer articles and for all of man’s knowledge. It should keep that, make it the structure of the site and fit each of its articles into it.
It needs to keep its content current. There is nothing on the Wikipedia, for example. (They added one at last in 2006 a few months after I wrote this).
It should read its server logs to see what readers are really interested in.
It needs a much much better search engine. Search is everything in an encyclopedia.
The Britannica has reinvented itself in the past. I hope it can do it again.