Encyclopedias traditionally have been regarded by academics as second-rate sources of information, collections of summaries short on depth and authority, works that any self-respecting academic would be embarrassed to cite in a paper or presentation. Using primary sources -- firsthand accounts and opinion -- is the gold standard.
But as the Internet makes dubious firsthand information available with a few clicks of the mouse, encyclopedias aren't looking so bad after all. In contrast to the rumors, gossip, hoaxes, exaggerations, falsehoods and mistakes that surfers can find on the 'Net, encyclopedias are a bastion of professionally written and edited material that for the most part is accurate and trustworthy.
Change is again rousing the once sleepy world of encyclopedias, making them more accessible than ever.
The leader here is the unlikeliest of trailblazers, the formerly staid and even fusty Encyclopaedia Britannica. This British-born -- but now American-owned -- grande dame of reference works, the last of the top encyclopedias to embrace multimedia CD-ROMs, is the first to make its entire content available for free on the Web.
At Britannica.com, computer users can freely search through any of 76,000 articles -- 3,000 more than in the 32-volume printed set, which is still available for a cool $1,250. Encyclopaedia Britannica maintains another Web site at www.eb.com that's targeted toward libraries, schools and other institutions and carries subscription fees.
To compete in the frenzied and future-oriented dot-com world, Britannica.com is giving away more than the wide-ranging content of its unparalleled encyclopedia. It also offers fresh material daily -- news, weather, sports, features on pop culture and other topics, and 125,000 selected links to other Web sites. "We want people to visit us every day," says spokesman Tom Panelas.
To succeed, the company needs frequent visitors. Its business model is based on advertising and e-commerce -- the company sells educational tools such as telescopes and science kits.
Brittanica.com is at the vanguard, with other encyclopedias likely to follow, if kicking and screaming. "As print encyclopedias were overwhelmed by CD-ROMs, CD-ROM encyclopedias may be overwhelmed by the Web," says David Card, an analyst for Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm in New York.
Microsoft, the company that has succeeded by trying to eat everyone else's lunch, has taken baby steps here. At MSN Encarta, http://encarta.msn.com, viewers receive free access to a concise encyclopedia of 16,000 abridged articles and a world atlas. Access to the 42,000 articles in the unabridged encyclopedia still costs $50 a year, or $40 a year for those who recently bought an Encarta CD-ROM. …