The Britannica's Brain Trust

Interview with  (Britannica)

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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October 15, 2005

1. In a world of political correctness, relativism, and controversy, compiling a body of "universal", "objective" knowledge sounds like a Don Quixotic (not to say potentially chauvinistic) enterprise. What is the advantage of the Britannica over "participatory" reference works such as the Wikipedia?

2. How were the scholars and intellectuals that comprise the Editorial Board of Advisors selected? What were the criteria?

3. What does an Editorial Board of Advisors do? Does it have executive editorial roles or does it merely advise the editors? If the latter, to what extent is its advice likely to be heeded? In other words: what will be the editorial role and remit of this consultative Board?

4. Is the Britannica planning a wider public discourse of its future and of the role of knowledge in society, possibly with focus groups, conferences, through professional associations, Internet fora, and so on?

5. Are there mechanisms in place to receive, consider, and incorporate criticism, corrections, and input from the Encyclopedia's users?

6. How does the Britannica balance the seemingly conflicting needs for thoroughness and accessibility? How does it avoid, on the one hand, dumbing down, and, on the other hand, obscurantist and jargon-laden elitism?

7. Is there any place for collaboration between the Britannica and online reference works such as the Wikipedia (for instance, by providing links to the Britannica's authoritative content)?

Britannica Taps Top Minds for Knowledge Panel

Nobelists, university chiefs, scholars will probe future of knowledge and encyclopedias

CHICAGO, July 21, 2005-Fifteen of the world's leading scholars and intellectuals have joined Encyclopaedia Britannica to help chart the course
for the encyclopedia of the future. The company's new Editorial Board of Advisors, which includes Nobel laureates, university presidents and several of the world's most eminent artists and researchers, will help steer Britannica's editorial operations while grappling with the implications of digital technologies, globalization and the information explosion.

While the group's principal focus will be on Britannica's digital and print encyclopedias, it will also ponder the role of the encyclopedia and knowledge generally in today's world and contribute to the broader public discussion of these issues.

"The volume of information is exploding, the world is shrinking and digital media are changing the way we read, think and learn," said Dale Hoiberg,
editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  "We've brought together some of the best people from different fields to help us serve the knowledge seekers of the 21st century."

At a time when vast quantities of questionable information are available on the Internet and elsewhere, rigorous and reliable reference works are more
important than ever, said Hoiberg.  One motive behind the board's creation was to maintain the high standards of the Britannica while making sure it
remains relevant to the way people use information today.

The members of the board are:

Rosalía Arteaga - Secretary-General, Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization

Former president and vice president, Republic of Ecuador.

David Baltimore - president, California Institute of Technology and 1975 Nobel laureate in medicine.

Wendy Doniger - Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions and director of the Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago.

Benjamin M. Friedman - William Joseph Maier professor of political economy, Harvard University.

Leslie Gelb - president emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations; former writer and editor, New York Times; Pulitzer Prize winner.

Murray Gell-Mann - Robert Andrews Millikan professor of theoretical physics emeritus, California Institute of Technology; 1969 Nobel laureate in

Vartan Gregorian - president, Carnegie Corporation of New York; former president, Brown University; former president, New York Public Library.

Zaha Hadid - principal, Zaha Hadid Architects; 2004 laureate, PritzkerArchitecture Prize.

James M. McPherson - George Henry Davis '86 professor of American history, Princeton University; Pulitzer Prize winner.

Thomas Nagel - professor of philosophy and law and university professor, New York University School of Law.

Donald A. Norman - Nielsen Norman Group; professor, Northwestern University; professor emeritus, University of California, San Diego.

Don M. Randel - president, University of Chicago.

Amartya Sen - Lamont University professor, Harvard University; 1998 Nobel laureate in economics.

Wole Soyinka - playwright, poet, novelist, critic; 1986 Nobel laureate in literature.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood - president, Royal Society of Edinburgh; member, House of Lords.

The new board is the latest chapter in Britannica's history of working with eminent scholars. The encyclopedia's contributors have included Albert
Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Bertrand Russell and more than a hundred Nobel laureates.  The company's first editorial board was formed in
the 1940s, under Robert Maynard Hutchins, then chancellor of the University of Chicago.  It was later chaired by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, and its members included writer Clifton Fadiman and historian Daniel J. Boorstin.

"We have always sought the company of the smartest people in the world," said Hoiberg, "and once you get used to that it's a hard habit to break."
The board, which held its first meeting in Chicago last month, will meet twice a year and conduct other activities in between.  More information is
available at:

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. has been a leader in reference and education publishing since 1768. The company is known for the 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica, the 26-volume Compton's by Britannica and its pioneering work in electronic publishing. Its many digital products include Britannica Online School Edition. Recently published printed products include My First Britannica and the Britannica World Atlas. Britannica makes its headquarters in Chicago. More information is at


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