Britannica’s Reference Galaxy

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.


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September 2010, October 2011, October 2012, October 2013, October 2014

Overview

Britannica Online

Encyclopedia Britannica 2011-2015 Ultimate Editions

Britannica Guides and CD-ROMs

Overview

The Encyclopedia Britannica has long been much more than a venerable print reference work. Almost two decades ago, it pioneered a freemium website (some content free, other content behind a pay wall). This has now flourished into a comprehensive walled garden of knowledge. Additionally, the Britannica publishes books and DVDs about specific topics and issues (the venerable flagship print encyclopedia had been discontinued in 2012.) These are the best primers and introductions available to a host of fields and areas, from history to science. Add to these the Britannica newly-minted apps and you realize that the Britannica, more than ever, is now everywhere!

Britannica Online

The Britannica’s rich online content adds context and dollops of information to the already unsurpassed DVD (see below). It has been completely re-designed and is now Google-like in its simplicity, clutter-free and user-friendly as never before. Alas, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products no longer enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource.

Admittedly, at 70-120 USD annually the Britannica Online is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, schools, and libraries than to individuals. It already sports an academic edition as well as editions geared at business, government, schools and libraries, which include special features such as Image Quest (downloadable, annotated videos) and STEM resources, including Pathways: Science. Journalists are granted free access. Still, the Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

The Britannica has new Publishing Partner Program. It is an outreach program for contributors and institutions looking for greater visibility... (I)ndependent writers and members of a college, think tank, museum, academy, academic consortium, or graduate school are encouraged to contribute to Britannica in their areas of expertise, join Britannica’s stellar roster of contributors (which includes more than 110 Nobel Prize recipients and scores of Pulitzer Prize winners), and by doing so reach a large global audience. Likewise, companies and institutions with special assets such as videos, photographs, and primary documents, and which are looking for ways to expand their outreach, are encouraged to contribute as well.  All articles and assets shared through this partnership will remain open to and freely accessible by the public.”

The home page includes one “Did You Know?” article, which changes frequently; Today on the Britannica (an “on this day in history” feature); 5 other randomly chosen articles; excerpts from the Britannica’s Advocacy for Animals website; an interview blog; and a list of articles by category. Gone are yesteryear’s spotlight topics (women who changed the world; US Presidents; D-Day; Black history; Holocaust; Oscar winners; Titanic; and more) and “Browse Experts” (a gallery of the Britannica’s contributors.)

The menu bar is comprised of a search box, “popular topics”, quizzes, image galleries, lists, and “Your Stories”: community projects in conjunction with the encyclopedia’s team of editors. There’s a Google Ads bar at the bottom, which is both unseemly and incongruent.

The search results are straightforward and every article page contains relevant images and videos as well a list of related topics, people, places, quotations, websites, bibliography, and contributors pulled from both the corpus itself and the Books of the Year. There’s even a Wikipedia-like “article history”, which reflects its editing process. The Article Tool Bar allows the user to print the article, share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Google Plus (and also the old-fashioned way, via e-mail), cite it (using a variety of styles), or contribute to it. Unlike Wikipedia, though in a nod to crowdsourcing, users’ comments, corrections, and suggestions, are vetted and reviewed for relevance and accuracy by the Britannica’s dedicated team of editors. Any word in any of the articles can be double-clicked for its definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

But, in an age of mobile, wireless smartphones, tablets, and ultrabooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. Until recently, the Britannica provided a range of apps to its offerings: owners of iPhones, iPads, Android smartphones, and Microsoft’s Word 2013 could enjoy unfettered and free-to-cheap access to the Concise Britannica, or to its full text and multimedia, depending on the app and apps were made available via iTunes and Google’s Play Store.

There is a variety of delightful apps for kids (US Presidents; Snakes; Knights and Castles; Aztec Empire; Ancient Rome; Rainforests; Solar System; Ancient Egypt; Volcanoes; and Dinosaurs.). There are also browser widgets which facilitate the surfing of the Britannica Online and fully benefit from its visual content. Although Britannica Online sports a Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube presence there does not seem to be coherent strategies in place either for content management, or for marketing via social networks. Britannica’s presence on these sites seems to be an afterthought.

The widgets as well as the main website are available in several languages, including Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Spanish. I tested the site on 6 mobile phones (older versions of SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3, and Siemens, Samsung Note 3, and Samsung Galaxy 4), several tablets (including iPad Air), and laptops and it worked well as far as text is concerned. Graphics and videos were another matter, but this is a problem common to all websites: from YouTube to the CNN.

Britannica Online provides a gamut of educational resources: learning materials (lists, quizzes, image galleries, study guides, interactive lessons, online activities, printable worksheets, and other exercises); Teacher Handbooks; Educational Web sites; Britannica training documents for teachers, students, parents, and administrators; and a monthly newsletter, featuring new and updated content. The Britannica even organizes Professional Development workshop for educators. There is a delightful, colourful, and multimedia-rich Britannica Online for Kids , and a hugely helpful SmartMath portal.

In total, the Britannica Online comprises more than 1 million pages. The paid content is augmented by loads of free features. The aforementioned “Spotlights” provide hand-picked multimedia-enhanced tours of broad subjects; newsletters provide a plethora of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics.

Britannica Online Retired Features

Online research tools include: an A to Z, biography, and subject browsers and a sophisticated search box of the entire encyclopedia content; access to Webster’s Dictionary; Annals of American History; more than 350,000 primary source documents; and the entire Project Gutenberg e-books collection; in-depth (“extended play”) videos about selected topics coupled with an impressive assortment of other media; a quotations finder; a world atlas; World Data Analyst (statistics by country, replete with analytical, comparative, and graphing tools); timelines on a multitude of subjects, from sports to evolution; the browseable content of more than 500 magazines (otherwise not available online for free); and an “on this day” (“Born This Day”, “This Day in History”) feature which aggregates date-sensitive content from the entire corpus of information.  A selection of new and revised full-text articles is highlighted. The Britannica is also available in Spanish (Enciclopedia Universal) and French (Encyclopedie Universalis.)

Everything is grouped into 7 channels which display rotating daily samples culled from the Encyclopedia: History and Society, Arts and Entertainment, Travel and Geography, Science and Technology, Featured Video, Britannica Blog (as content-rich as the Encyclopedia itself!), and the aforementioned Advocacy for Animals. Aggregated newsfeeds from the BBC News and the New-York Times sit right atop a Merriam-Webster dictionary searchbox.

Encyclopedia Britannica 2015 Ultimate Edition

My first pleasant surprise was the lightning speed at which this mammoth software installed on a 5 year old laptop. The user is prompted to choose from 3 encyclopaedias (Britannica, Student, and Elementary). Many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2015 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From Ukraine to ISIL (in the Book of the Year 2013), the Britannica is now fully up to date. This has not been the case in previous editions and it is a welcome development if the Britannica is to compete with online reference works such as Wikipedia. The DVD is a loss-leader, but a great promotional vehicle for the lucrative online edition, so hopefully it won’t go the way of the print edition, which was terminated in 2012.

Compared to its predecessor, the Encyclopedia Britannica 2015 Ultimate Edition (formerly "Student and Home Edition") contains 15% more text and 15% fewer images and videos. It builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last eight versions had been impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds, Heroes and Villains, and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den).

The Britannica 2015 comes bundled with an atlas (close to 2900 maps linked to articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories); the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; eighteen yearbooks (14,800 articles in total); Interactive Timelines with 4000+ indexed timeline entries; a Research Organizer; and a Knowledge Navigator (called The Brain or BrainStormer). All told, it offers a directory of more than 166,000 reviewed and vetted links to online content.

In its new form the Britannica is user-friendly, with an A to Z Quick Search feature. The Britannica's newest interface is even more intuitive and uncluttered than previously and is great fun to use. It offers morsels of knowledge, some of it date-specific, appetizingly presented through a ticker-tape of visuals that leisurely scrolls across the bottom of the screen plus highly edifying interactive tours of articles and attendant media.

When you enter even the first few letters of a term in the search box, it offers various options and is persistent: no need to click on the toolbar's "search" button every time you want to find something in this vast storehouse of knowledge. Moreover, the user can save search results onto handy "Virtual Notecards". Whole articles can be copied onto the seemingly inexhaustible Workspace.

The new Britannica's display is tab-based, avoiding the erstwhile confusing proliferation of windows with every move. Most importantly, articles appear in full, not in sections. This major improvement facilitates the finding of relevant keywords in and the printing of entire texts. These are only a few of the numerous alterations and enhancements.

Perhaps the most refreshing change is the Britannica's Update Center. Dozens of monthly updates and new, timely articles are made available online (no registration required now!). A special button alerts the user when an entry in the base product has been updated.

Regrettably, the updates are not incorporated into the vast encyclopedia and its search interface: they are out there on a website. Moreover, the product does not alert its user to the existence of completely new articles, only to updated ones. It takes a manual scan of the monthly lists to reveal newly added content.

Speaking of updates, one must not forget to dwell on the Britannica's unequalled yearbooks. Each annual volume contains the year in events, scientific developments, and everything you wanted to know about the latest in any and every conceivable field of human endeavour, or Nature. About 14,800 articles culled from the last 18 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia's anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2015 edition, the content of the yearbooks is more neatly and intuitively arranged than before, both chronologically and thematically.

The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant traditional encyclopedia, print or digital (close to 70 million words). While it has noticeably enhanced its non-textual content over the years (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but words, words, and more words), it has now reverted to its roots and scaled back on images and videos in favour of augmented text offerings. It still boasts in excess of 17,000 images and illustrations (depending on the version) and 900 video and audio clips. This is not to mention the Britannica Classics: articles from Britannica's most famous contributors: from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Harry Houdini and from Marie Curie to Orville Wright.

The Britannica fully supports serious research. It is a sober assemblage of first-rate essays, up to date bibliographies, and relevant multimedia. It constitutes a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.

The Britannica's 87-125,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields, including 110 Nobel laureates. The company's Editorial Board of Advisors reads like the who's who of the global intellectual and scientific community.

The Britannica is an embarrassment of riches. Users often find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. This is why the Britannica incorporated the “Personal Brain” to cope with this predicament. But an informal poll I conducted online shows that few know how to deploy it effectively.

The Britannica also sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product, replete with 23,000 articles, a Homework Helpdesk, "how to" documents, and interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials. Still, the Britannica is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. It provides unequalled coverage of its topics.

Ironically, this is precisely why the market positioning of the Britannica's Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is problematic: compared to Wikipedia, the Britannica's brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by Encarta’s (lamented) discontinuance, though, should make it easier to market the Student and Elementary versions (which are an integral part of the Ultimate Edition and not sold separately).

Still, the 2015 editions of both the Student and Elementary encyclopedias improve on the past in terms of both coverage and facilities: the Homework Helpdesk is a collection of useful homework resources including a video subject browse; online learning games and activities; online subject spotlights; and how-to documents on topics such as writing a book review. There are also Learning Games and Activities: hundreds of fun and interactive games and activities to help students with subjects like Math, Science, and Social Studies. Both versions are updated monthly with new online-only articles. There is a Workspace for managing projects and many timelines and tutorials.

The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from articles about new topics and personalities in the news, it offers additional and timely content and revisions on a dedicated Web site. The digital product includes a staggering number of links (166,808!) to third party content and articles on the Web. The GeoAnalyzer, which compares national statistical data and generates charts and graphs, is now Web-based and greatly enhanced.

The Britannica would do well to offer a browser add-on search bar and to integrate with desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Currently it offers search results through Google but this requires the user to install add-ons or plug-ins and to go through a convoluted rite of passage. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over - their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web - using a single, intuitive interface.

Some major and minor gripes:

I couldn’t find a way to install all three encyclopaedias at the same time. Households with adults and children may need different versions of the Britannica installed on the same computer.

The Britannica DVD cannot be downloaded as an ISO or EXE file from the Internet. In an age of widespread broadband this is a curious omission of a powerful, all-pervasive distribution channel. The Britannica DVD – now shipped via regular mail from locations around the globe - could also be distributed through marketing affiliates in the dozens of developing countries where postal services are dysfunctional or non-existent.

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Britannica are still surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current - and dynamically updated – offerings (perhaps team up with Google)? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?

Despite considerable improvements over the previous editions, the Britannica still consumes (not to say hogs) computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes it less suitable for installation on older PCs and on netbooks. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 4, less than 1 Gb RAM, and fewer than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best. It is not available for Windows XP and earlier operating systems.

But that's it. Don't think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf to the Britannica's Web site) and purchase the 2014 edition now. It offers excellent value for money. For less than the price of an antivirus software and for a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, you will significantly enhance your access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom.

With the demise of Microsoft's Encarta (it has been discontinued) and the tribulations of Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2015 (established in 1768) may have already won the battle of reference.

Britannica Guides and CD-ROMs

Britannica guides come in two forms: books and CD-ROMs. By now, the range of titles and issues tackled is staggering: from climate change to Renaissance artists. I have written extensively and have read widely on many of the topics, but have yet to find more balanced and roundly-informed offerings than The Britannica’s. A typical print guide sports 400+ pages, densely packed with state-of-the-art data and research, the Britannica team having covered every conceivable aspect, bringing to the fore the most current knowledge; the most recent studies; the most erudite interlocutors; and the hardest of facts.

Take, as an example, the Britannica Guide to Climate Change, a typical product: it starts with an edifying vade mecum: an introduction by the eminent scientist, Robert M. May. While clearly on the side of environmentalists, he is no starry-eyed tree hugger but a hard-nosed scientist, worried sick about our abuse of our only planet, Earth. This is followed by concise but comprehensive chapters dedicated to climate, climate change, and weather forecasting; the changing planet (land, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the decline in biodiversity); and an overview of ideas and arguments about the environment, replete with a synoptic sweep of history and prominent thinkers. Finally, the book charts our (relative) progress and what more needs to be done, including an overview of all available alternative energy technologies. The book is refreshing in its objectivity and candor. It refrains from taking sides or from preaching. This does not mean that it is a soulless inventory of data: on the contrary, it is yet another passionate plea to save our planet and our future. But it addresses our brains rather than our hearts and this makes for a welcome departure from contemporary practices.

The CD-ROMs are actually compilations of topic-specific content – both text and visuals – from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Encyclopedia is sprawling and, despite its exhaustive internal hyperlinks, the chances of missing out on relevant content are high and the effort required in tracking down all the branches of its tree of knowledge is considerable. Britannica’s CD-ROMs come to the rescue. Consider, for example, the “Discovering Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Life” disc: it aggregates hundreds of articles about dinosaurs, ancient plants, ancient marine life, ancient amphibians, reptiles, and birds, ancient mammals, fossils, paleontology, geologic time, and pertinent biographies. The disc contains hundreds of videos, animations, and images as well as homework tools and research organizers. The CD-ROM constitutes an ideal – and guided - tour of the treasure trove that is the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is easy to install and comes with a 30-day free trial of the Britannica Online.


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