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POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Encyclopaedia Britannica Is Now Open for Consulting on the Internet

October 25, 1995|DANIEL AKST

Assuming you're eating regularly and have a place to live, few things are more useful than an encyclopedia. And few encyclopedias can match the authority or scope of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Now, after extensive Internet testing, Britannica is officially open for business on-line. I signed up for a trial right away, of course, and found that the on-line version of this venerable compendium--the first edition was published in Edinburgh in 1768--has some great strengths and some real weaknesses.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Britannica Online is that it makes the encyclopedia available in homes where people don't have the money or the room for the 32-volume printed edition, which starts at $1,599 and weighs 135 pounds. Britannica Online is also cheaper than the CD-ROM version, a single disc that sells for $495.

Another nice thing about the on-line version is that it promises to be more current than the print version, which is updated annually. The O.J. Simpson verdict, for instance, made Britannica Online the day the jury announced it. The article on Lou Gehrig was adjusted with similar dispatch to reflect Cal Ripken's new consecutive-games record in baseball. And lest anyone think Britannica is abandoning its historic mission, the list of new articles when last I looked included Arnulf of Rohea, "also called ARNULF MALECORNE (d. 1118), Latin patriarch of Jerusalem in 1099 and again from 1112 until his death." Evidently Arnulf never had enough votes to make it until now.

I'm also happy to report that Britannica Online is great fun. Searches are fast, and the articles, as you might expect, excellent. Moreover, the on-line version of Britannica makes use of the new medium's special features. For instance, an article on Agnes Scott College includes not just a link to the related Britannica topic, "Higher education: colleges, universities, and professional schools," it also includes a link to the Decatur, Ga., school's home page.

Britannica Online takes further advantage of its medium by covering even more ground than the print edition. The company says the on-line version already has fully 1,200 articles not in the bound volumes, and Editor in Chief Robert McHenry notes that on-line distribution of the encyclopedia removes a number of constraints that limit the print edition. For instance, adding entries to the on-line version doesn't mean eliminating others, and a worthy article that comes in unexpectedly long doesn't have to be cut.

Yet another virtue of Britannica Online is that the maddening division of the printed edition into "micropedia" and "macropedia," deplorably imposed on the 15th edition when it first appeared in 1974, becomes almost invisible, so that I no longer feel I have to look everything up twice.

But the on-line setup isn't perfect. My biggest gripe is that longer articles are divided into brief segments, many filling less than a single screen. Look up "newspapers," for example, and you'll find wonderful information. For instance, starting in 59 BC the Romans had their Acta Diurna, an official publication written by hand and posted in prominent public places. It included not just official doings, but astrological omens, gladiatorial results and other clear-cut precursors of features in any modern newspaper.

Unfortunately, it's hard for this material to cohere as any kind of narrative because, after every couple of hundred words, you have to click "next section." I found this extremely annoying, and longed for a way to access one long account of the subject, perhaps one that I could print if I wished on my fast laser printer. (The CD-ROM edition of Britannica, by the way, suffers from the same problem, since it is basically a snapshot of Britannica Online.)

One reason for the bite-size chunks is the length of many Britannica entries. The article on the United States, for instance, runs to an astonishing 300,000 words, the size of two or three regular books. McHenry says Britannica is working on better breaks; those in the current on-line version simply occur wherever hypertext markup language headings appear, and most were made by computer, without human intervention.

The problem is that, in turning to an encyclopedia, I don't just want to look up a single fact--especially when turning to Britannica. When I consult a good encyclopedia, I want to learn a lot about a subject in a short period of time. I also think the advantages of being absolutely up-to-the-minute are exaggerated. Sure the world is changing fast, but that doesn't mean that everything we have thought about the Civil War until yesterday is folderal. And finally, with none of these products can you easily illuminate a dinner-table debate by bringing down the volume and reading the gospel according to Britannica right from the book.

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