Britannica’s Reference Galaxy 2016

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

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 – now far less cluttered than last year’s – includes “Britannica Stories”, which change frequently are related to the news; “Spotlight” stories and a “Demystified” item; a selection of videos from the Britannica’s impressive, vetted collection; “Explore Encyclopaedia Britannica”: randomly rotated in-depth articles; quizzes, lists, quotes and trivia; photo galleries; trending articles; and featured blogs. The menu bar is comprised of a search box, stories, quizzes, image galleries, and lists. Scroll to the very bottom to find a link to the newest and updated articles. That’s it: a combination of Google-like simplicity and social media verve immersed in the unparalleled deep learning that the Britannica reifies ever since 1768.

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 resident Merriam-Webster Dictionaries. Subscribers to the Academic and Library edition gain access to a plethora of carefully chosen links to reviewed outside content and magazine articles.

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. The Britannica offers access to its complete content via a range of apps for iPhones, iPads, and Android smartphones. There’s also a Britannica app for kids. The apps are available via Apple’s iTunes and Google’s Play Store. Alas, gone is the plug-in/app for Microsoft’s Word which offered unfettered and free-to-cheap access to the Concise Britannica, or to its full text and multimedia, depending on the version.

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 YouTube, especially, seems to be an erratic 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 8 mobile phones (older versions of SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3 and 6s, and Siemens, Samsung Note 3, Samsung Galaxy 4 and Samsung Note 4), several tablets (including iPad Air and Windows 8.1 device), 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 is an entire ecosystem. It provides a gamut of educational resources: learning materials (lists, quizzes, image galleries, study guides, interactive lessons, online activities, printable worksheets, and other exercises); A portal dedicated to kids and parents (in English and in Portuguese for the Brazilian market); an “Advocacy for Animals” integrated blog; Arabic-English, Spanish-English, and English-English (Nglish) online dictionaries and learning resources; a “My Workspace” feature that serves as a kind of dedicated cloud storage for Britannica content, including images and videos; 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 panoply of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics.

Encyclopedia Britannica 2016 Ultimate Edition

My first pleasant surprise was the lightning speed at which this mammoth software installed on a 7 year old laptop. The user is prompted to choose from 3 encyclopaedias (Britannica, Student, and Elementary). Many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2016 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From Europe’s refugee crisis to ISIL (in the Book of the Year 2014), 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. It is now produced and sold in India by the Britannica Southeast Asia (www.britannicaindia.com)

Compared to its predecessor, the Encyclopedia Britannica 2016 Ultimate Edition (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) contains 15% more text and 15% fewer images and videos. It incorporates the entire content of the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica print set (88,000 articles) plus another 60,000 articles in the Student and Elementary editions.

The 2016 DVD 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, 600+ 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 2016 comes bundled with an atlas (close to 2500 maps linked to specific articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories, their economies and other national statistics); the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and Student Dictionaries and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; twenty yearbooks (19,000 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 and pointers to thousands of videos and magazines online.

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, printable “Virtual Notecards”. Whole articles – replete with videos and images – 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 15,000 articles culled from the last 20 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2016 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 19,000 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 88-148,000 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 60,000 articles, a Homework Helpdesk, “how to” documents, and hundreds of interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials as well as social science walkthroughs. 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 2016 editions of both the Student and Elementary Encyclopaedias 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 regarding people, events, and places in history.

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 a DRM-protected 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 available only in India – 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 2016 (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.

===================================

Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

ebindia

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The Ubiquitous Britannica 2015

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

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 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.
===================================

Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com

Britannica Online, Britannica DVD 2014

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

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. Indeed, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource (they merely need to register their products online). Admittedly, at 30-50 USD annually the Britannica Online is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, schools, and libraries than to individuals. It already has an academic edition as well as editions geared at schools and libraries, which include special features such as Image Quest (downloadable, annotated videos) and STEM resources, including Pathways: Science. Still, the Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

The home page includes one major article, which changes frequently; Today on the Britannica (an “on this day in history” feature); a selection of 5 other articles, apparently randomly selected; excerpts from the Britannica’s Advocacy for Animals website and Blog; and a few spotlight topics (women who changed the world; US Presidents; D-Day; Black history; Holocaust; Oscar winners; Titanic; and more.) The menu bar is comprised of a search box, “popular topics”, quizzes, image galleries, lists, and “Browse Experts” (a gallery of the Britannica’s contributors.) 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. 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, 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, and ultrabooks, or netbooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. Recently, the Britannica added a range of apps to its offerings: owners of iPhones, iPads, Android smartphones, and Microsoft’s Word 2013 can enjoy unfettered and free-to-cheap access to the Concise Britannica, or to its full text and multimedia, depending on the app. Apps as well as the main website are available in several languages, including Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Spanish. I tested the site on 4 mobile phones (older versions of SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3, and Siemens) 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. The apps can be obtained via Google Play.

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.

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.

Encyclopedia Britannica 2014 Ultimate Edition

My first pleasant surprise was the speed at which this mammoth software installed on a 4 year old laptop. The user is prompted to choose from 3 encyclopaedias (Britannica, Student, and Elementary). Many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2014 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From the “Morsi, Mohammed” (Egypt’s deposed president) to the Edward Snowden (in the updates section), 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.

The Encyclopedia Britannica 2014 Ultimate Edition (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last seven 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). Six months of free access to the myriad riches of the Britannica Online complete the package (as well as monthly updates and discounts on a plethora of products).

The Britannica 2014 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; seventeen yearbooks (14,200 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 (subject to free, pain-free, registration). 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 14,200 articles culled from the last 17 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2014 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 (a total of 62 million words). But 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 now boasts in excess of 23,000 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 85-107,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields. 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 19,500 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 the Encarta (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 2014 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.

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 the Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2013 (established in 1768) may have won the battle of reference.

Britannica Everywhere?

Overview

The Encyclopedia Britannica has long been much more than a venerable print reference work. A decade 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 CD-ROMs about specific topics and issues. These are the best primers and introductions available to a host of fields and areas, from history to science.

Britannica Online

The Britannica’s rich online content adds context and dollops of information to the already unsurpassed DVD (see below). Indeed, buyers of any of the Britannica’s physical products enjoy 30-180 days of free access to this cornucopian resource (subject to registration of their products). But, in an age of mobile, wireless smartphones and netbooks, the Britannica Online is also a stand-alone product: it provides the entire content of the DVD and much, much more besides. Admittedly, at 30-50 USD annually it is not cheap and thus more suited to institutions, universities, and libraries than to individuals. The Britannica would do well to consider an affordable, more limited consumer version.

Research tools include: an A to Z, biography, and subject browsers and a sophisticated search box of the entire encyclopedia content; access to 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; 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.

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 Advocacy for Animals. Any word in any of the articles can be double-clicked for its definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

In total, the Britannica Online comprises more than 1 million pages. There is a delightful, colourful, and multimedia-rich Britannica Online for Kids.

The paid content is augmented by loads of free features. “Spotlights” provide hand-picked multimedia-enhanced tours of broad subjects (Nobel prizes, Hispanic heritage, Shakespeare, women who changed the world, American presidents, Normandy 1944, black history, the Holocaust, and the Oscar awards); newsletters provide a plethora of theme-specific information; RSS feeds allow the user to explore places, people, and topics; aggregated newsfeeds from the BBC News and the New-York Times sit right atop a Merriam-Webster dictionary searchbox.

I tested the site on 4 mobile phones (older versions SonyEricsson and Nokia, iPhone 3, and Siemens) 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 has an iPhone edition and great topic-specific apps for the iPhone as well as a “Concise Britannica” app. There are also browser widgets which facilitate the surfing of the Britannica Online and fully benefit from its visual content.

I could find no Britannica apps for Android-based smartphones and devices: a major lacuna. 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. I couldn’t get the “Britannica on Google” thingie to work either (Error 404.)

Encyclopedia Britannica 2011-2012 Ultimate Editions

My first pleasant surprise was the discovery that many articles in the Britannica Ultimate 2012 edition have been revamped to incorporate up to the minute developments. From “Hosni Mubarak” to the tsunami disaster in Japan in 2011, 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.

Both the Encyclopedia Britannica 2011 and 2012 Ultimate Editions (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) build on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-10. The rate of innovation in the last six versions was 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). Six months of free access to the myriad riches of the Britannica Online complete the package (as well as monthly updates and discounts on a plethora of products).

The Britannica 2012 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; fourteen yearbooks (12,200 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 (subject to free registration). 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 endeavor, or Nature. About 12,200 articles culled from the last 14 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings. In the 2012 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 (a total of 62 million words). But 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 now boasts in excess of 37,000 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 82-107,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields. 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 16,500 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 the Wikipedia, the Britannica’s brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by the Encarta (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 2011 and 2012 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.

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 (165,808!) 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 minor gripes:

To install the Britannica, I had to disable my Comodo firewall.

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

Despite considerable improvement over the previous edition, 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 less than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best.

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 2010 edition now. It offers excellent value for money (less than $40, with a rebate). 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 the Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2010 (established in 1768) may have 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.

Maltin’s Movie Guides Keep Giving

Maltin’s Movie Guide requires no booting, minimal “surfing”, and no software, or special hardware. It is always on and it is authoritative in the best sense of the word: implying erudition, not bullying. It is updated sufficiently frequently to remain relevant in its field, though, admittedly, a web presence with real-time capsule reviews, peer-reviewed content, and user-generated commentary would have leveraged the Maltin brand to good use. An iPhone/iPad app of the Guide is a step in the right direction, hopefully to be followed by a comparable Android offering.

In an age of crowdsourcing and mob “wisdom” made available on every mobile device, why invest in a reference book? With dozens of user reviews available on websites such as imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com for each film ever shot, however obscure – why bother with Maltin’s voluminous fine-print doorstopper movie guides? Because Maltin is the Britannica to imdb’s Wikipedia: he offers expertise where laymen merely register opinions.

There are two Maltin movie guides: the veteran and venerated “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide”, annually published since 1996 and a lighter-weight but equally authoritative “Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide” whose second edition covers movies made no later than 1965. The Guides are mutually exclusive: most films would be listed in either book, but not in both. Each volume proffers between 10,000 (the Classics Guide) and 17,000 (the annual tome) capsule reviews of movies and what a marvel these snippets are!

Each capsule review comes replete with a plethora of information culled from hundreds of sources: date of release, viewing time in minutes, a quality rating assigned by the Guide’s editors (more about them later) as well as the MPAA’s parental guidance rating, credits of directors and actors involved, a brief synopsis of the plot, and even gossip, cameo appearances, anecdotes, and the social and cultural context of the work – all neatly and articulately folded into a Tweet-like 100 words or less!

The annual Guide also includes an incisive and insightful essay (in the form of an introduction) about the current state of the cinematic arts and commerce; lists of movies by topic (this year it is the Favorite Films of the New Millennium); mail-order and online sources for home videos (a USA-centric feature, admittedly); a widescreen glossary; and an index of film stars (gone is the index of movie directors, alas!) each with his or her respective oeuvre. The Classic Guide augments these offerings with “25 vintage movies you really shouldn’t miss.”

Back to our opening salvo: why not stick with imdb, or rottentomatoes, both of which now aggregate critics’ reviews from a wide variety of sources, print and digital?

When one is faced with a health problem one consults a doctor or two (for a second opinion.) No one I have heard of confers with 10, 70, or 5000 doctors. The element of expertise is crucial. The authors-editors of the two Guides are not merely the world’s leading critics (which they are) – but some of them have actually worked in the film industry, bringing to the proverbial table invaluable insights gleaned first-hand. Moreover, the usefulness, indeed indispensability of an informed impartial guide grows in an environment of cacophonic background noise and random “lists”.

But surely cinema – as opposed to medicine – is a matter of taste and opinion rather than facts and figures? Well, yes and no. Filmmaking is a discipline which must be learned and assimilated methodically and in-depth. Many of its aspects are utterly objective. The same applies to film historiography. And when it comes to taste and opinion I would rather rely on Maltin’s than on any Joe Schmo with a keyboard and time to kill. Even when I wholeheartedly disagree with Maltin (“Black Swan”, “Blade Runner” and that’s only on one page of the Guide!), I find myself challenged, enlightened, provoked, and informed by the collective intelligence and unfathomable knowledge of the crew behind the book.

No lover of the movies should go without a Maltin Guide (or two.)

DISCLAIMER: I have bought every single edition of Maltin’s Guides that I possess, except the last two, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.

The Wikipedia Cult

Interview granted to Daniel Tynan, May 2010

Q. When did the cult start?

A. I was involved with both the Wikipedia and its predecessor, the Nupedia. When the Nupedia was shelved and the Wikipedia launched, the first clusters of contributors regarded themselves as knowledge-aficionados, akin to an open-source movement. The Wikipedia did not possess the penetration and clout that it now enjoys. It was a club of gifted amateurs, to use the British expression. But as the Wikipedia expanded and attained its current status and prowess, power-hungry, narcissistic bullies leveraged it to cater to their psychological needs. Around 2003, the Wikipedia had acquired all the hallmarks of a cult: hierarchy, arcane rules, paranoid insularity, intolerance of dissent, and a cosmic grandiose mission.

Q. Approximately how many members/acolytes does it have?

A. The inner core of the English-language Wikipedia has c. 2000 members. Of these, about 200-300 members make all the important, strategic decisions. The others monitor articles and edit them, usually in order to promote and protect their own points of view and interests. This is not an informal network: it is completely rigid with a hierarchy, titles, job descriptions, remits, and responsibilities. It is a stringently edited work, not a loose forum, or a BBS. Many in the upper echelons (and in Wikimedia, the non-profit that is overseeing the whole operation) earn salaries and enjoy junkets and perks.

Q. Are there regular gatherings of the tribes? If so, when and where?  Who are its major and minor deities?

A. Wikipedia members meet regularly all over the globe, in special gatherings dedicated to the “encyclopedia”, its catechism and Weltanschauung, its regulatory (including enforcement and penal) mechanisms, and its future. Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales is invariably the star of such conclaves and fulfils the combined roles of prophet and Dear Leader. The Wikipedia’s narcissistic co-founder deserves a special analysis: he subtly misrepresents facts (claims that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, that he hold no special influence over it); Wales ignores data that conflicts with his fantasy world; he is above the law, including and especially his own laws (was caught editing his own Wikipedia entry, for instance); talks about himself in 3rd person singular; minimizes the contributions and role of others (such as the Wikipedia’s real visionary, Larry Sanger); has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself and his life; sets ever more complex rules in a convoluted world of grandiose fantasies with its own language (jargon); displays false modesty and “folksiness”; sublimates aggression and holds grudges; and, all in all, is an eternal adolescent (his choice of language, peripatetic pursuits). Wikipedia is its founder writ large: narcissistic, autistic, solipsistic, and puerile.

Q. What are its holy text(s)?

A. Authoritarian-totalitarian bureaucracies are marked by strict, rigid adherence to sacred texts – both foundational and exegetic – and by the blind and ruthless implementation of codified, arcane rules of conduct. The use of acronyms and ciphers singles out the initiated and separates them from the hoi polloi. The Wikipedia’s holy scriptures are strewn all over its Website, mainly in the Help and FAQs sections. Yet, though accessible, they are largely incomprehensible at first sight. They require months of learning and are ambiguous. This ambiguity requires frequent intervention and interpretation by a tiny self-imputed elite, equivalent to the priesthood in established religions. The decisions of these arbiters are often final and, in many cases, arbitrary. This gives them enormous power which they use intentionally to drive away competition by alienating contributors (especially experts and scholars) and intimidating newcomers (who are often regarded as potential troublemakers).

Q. Are there other cults Wikipedians share affinities with?

A. All cults are the same: they spawn a hierarchy, sport arcane rules, suffer from paranoid insularity, do not tolerate dissent, criticism, and disagreement, and ascribe to themselves a cosmic grandiose mission. No cult is benign. All cults are run by individuals with narcissistic traits and the Wikipedia is no exception.

The narcissist is the guru at the centre of a cult. Like other gurus, he demands complete obedience from his flock. He feels entitled to adulation and special treatment by his followers. He punishes the wayward and the straying lambs. He enforces discipline, adherence to his teachings and common goals. The less accomplished he is in reality – the more stringent his mastery and the more pervasive the brainwashing.

Cult leaders are narcissists who failed in their mission to “be someone”, to become famous, and to impress the world with their uniqueness, talents, traits, and skills. Such disgruntled narcissists withdraw into a “zone of comfort” (known as the “Pathological Narcissistic Space”) that assumes the hallmarks of a cult.

The narcissist’s control is based on ambiguity, unpredictability, fuzziness, and ambient abuse. His ever-shifting whims exclusively define right versus wrong, desirable and unwanted, what is to be pursued and what to be avoided. He alone determines the rights and obligations of his disciples and alters them at will.

The cult’s leader acts in a patronising and condescending manner and criticises often. He alternates between emphasising the minutest faults (devalues) and exaggerating the talents, traits, and skills (idealises) of the members of his cult. He is wildly unrealistic in his expectations – which legitimises his subsequent abusive conduct.

The narcissist claims to be infallible, superior, talented, skilful, omnipotent, and omniscient. He often lies and confabulates to support these unfounded claims. Within his cult, he expects awe, admiration, adulation, and constant attention commensurate with his outlandish stories and assertions. He reinterprets reality to fit his fantasies.

The participants in the cult are hostile to critics, the authorities, institutions, his personal enemies, or the media – if they try to uncover his actions and reveal the truth. The narcissist’s cult is “missionary” and “imperialistic”. He is always on the lookout for new recruits. He immediately attempts to “convert” them to his “creed” – to convince them how wonderful and admirable he – and, by extension, the cult – is.

Often, his behaviour on these “recruiting missions” is different to his conduct within the “cult”. In the first phases of wooing new admirers and proselytising to potential “conscripts” the narcissist is attentive, compassionate, empathic, flexible, self-effacing, and helpful. At home, among the “veterans” he is tyrannical, demanding, wilful, opinionated, aggressive, and exploitative.

As the leader of his congregation, the narcissist feels entitled to special amenities and benefits not accorded the “rank and file”. He expects to be waited on hand and foot, to make free use of everyone’s money and dispose of their assets liberally, and to be cynically exempt from the rules that he himself established (if such violation is pleasurable or gainful).

Hence the narcissist’s panicky and sometimes violent reactions to “dropouts” from his cult. There’s a lot going on that the narcissist wants kept under wraps. Moreover, the narcissist stabilises his fluctuating sense of self-worth by deriving Narcissistic Supply (adulation, admiration, attention) from his victims. Abandonment threatens the narcissist’s precariously balanced personality.

Q. Are there other ‘cults’ or splinter groups Wikipedians consider rivals (or heretics)?

A. The Internet is overflowing with stories of former Wikipedians. They all claim to have been punished and mistreated following their “heresy” and “desertion”. I can only recount my personal experience with any certainty. When I left the Wikipedia, I wrote a widely-read article titled “The Six Sins of the Wikipedia”. It provoked heated debate and I became the target of Wikipedians the world over. I was on the receiving end of threats and mail bombs; the pages of my books in Amazon were flooded with bad reviews; I was vilified and subjected to an Internet-wide smear campaign, replete with defamatory and libellous statements; my work was plagiarized in various Wikipedia articles and repeated requests to remedy the situation were denied; my entry in the Wikipedia was deleted (after I threatened Wales and his cohorts with a class-action lawsuit). I do not believe that this was a coordinated, concerted, condoned, or centrally-directed onslaught. But, it does reflect the extreme fanaticism and aggressive intolerance of the cult.

Q. How would an outsider recognize a member of this cult?

A. Easily: try to criticize the Wikipedia, question its reliability and objectivity, doubt its co-founder, disagree with the way it is authored or edited, ponder its psychopathology, muse whether it is a cult. The responses of dyed-in-the-wool Wikipedians will prove to be violent, disproportionate, fanatical, intolerant, and malevolent.

Print Books (p-books) and Electronic Books (e-books): Different Packaging or Revolution?

The first-ever print runs were tiny by our standards and costly by any standard. Gutenberg produced fewer than 200 copies of his eponymous and awe-inspiring Bible and died a broken and insolvent man. Other printers followed suit when they failed to predict demand (by readers) and supply (by authors who acted as their own publishers, pirates, underground printers, and compilers of unauthorized, wild editions of works).

Confronted with the vagaries of this new technology, for many decades printer-publishers confined themselves to pornographic fiction, religious tracts, political pamphlets, dramaturgy, almanacs, indulgences, contracts, and prophecies – in other words, mostly disposable trash. As most books were read aloud – as a communal, not an individual experience – the number of copies required was limited.

Not surprisingly, despite the technological breakthroughs that coalesced to form the modern printing press, printed books in the 17th and 18th centuries were derided by their contemporaries as inferior to their laboriously hand-made antecedents and to the incunabula. One is reminded of the current complaints about the new media (Internet, e-books), its shoddy workmanship, shabby appearance, and the rampant piracy. The first decades following the invention of the printing press, were, as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it “a restless, highly competitive free for all … (with) enormous vitality and variety (often leading to) careless work”.

There were egregious acts of piracy – for instance, the illicit copying of the Aldine Latin “pocket books”, or the all-pervasive piracy in England in the 17th century (a direct result of over-regulation and coercive copyright monopolies). Shakespeare’s work was published by notorious pirates and infringers of emerging intellectual property rights. Later, the American colonies became the world’s centre of industrialized and systematic book piracy. Confronted with abundant and cheap pirated foreign books, local authors resorted to freelancing in magazines and lecture tours in a vain effort to make ends meet.

Pirates and unlicenced – and, therefore, subversive – publishers were prosecuted under a variety of monopoly and libel laws (and, later, under national security and obscenity laws). There was little or no difference between royal and “democratic” governments. They all acted ruthlessly to preserve their control of publishing. John Milton wrote his passionate plea against censorship, Areopagitica, in response to the 1643 licencing ordinance passed by Parliament. The revolutionary Copyright Act of 1709 in England established the rights of authors and publishers to reap the commercial fruits of their endeavours exclusively, though only for a prescribed period of time.

Books – at times with their authors – were repeatedly burned as the ultimate form of purging: Luther’s works were cast into the flames and, in retaliation, he did the same to Catholic opera; the oeuvres of Rousseau, Servetus, Hernandez, and, of course, of Jewish authors during the Nazi era all suffered an identical fate. Indeed, the Internet is the first text-based medium (at least at its inception) to have evaded censorship and regulation altogether.

The battle between industrial-commercial publishers (fortified by ever more potent technologies) and the arts and craftsmanship crowd never ceased and it is raging now as fiercely as ever in numerous discussion lists, fora, tomes, and conferences. William Morris started the “private press” movement in England in the 19th century to counter what he regarded as the callous commercialization of book publishing and the inexorable decline of Renaissance-type libraries and collections.

When the printing press was invented, it was put to commercial use by private entrepreneurs (traders) of the day. Established “publishers” (monasteries), with a few exceptions (e.g., in Augsburg, Germany and in Subiaco, Italy) shunned it and regarded it as a major threat to culture and civilization. Their attacks on printing read like the litanies against self-publishing or corporate-controlled publishing today.

But, as readership expanded (women and the poor became increasingly literate), market forces reacted. The number of publishers multiplied relentlessly. At the beginning of the 19th century, innovative lithographic and offset processes allowed publishers in the West to add illustrations (at first, black and white and then in color), tables, detailed maps and anatomical charts, and other graphics to their books. Battles fought between publishers-librarians over formats (book sizes) and fonts (Gothic versus Roman) were ultimately decided by consumer preferences. Multimedia was born. The e-book will, probably, undergo a similar transition from being the static digital rendition of a print edition – to being a lively, colorful, interactive and commercially enabled creature.

The commercial lending library and, later, the free library were two additional reactions to increasing demand. As early as the 18th century, publishers and booksellers expressed the fear that libraries will cannibalize their trade. Two centuries of accumulated experience demonstrate that the opposite has happened. Libraries have enhanced book sales and have become a major market in their own right.

Publishing has always been a social pursuit and depended heavily on social developments, such as the spread of literacy and the liberation of minorities (especially, of women). As every new format matures, it is subjected to regulation from within and from without. E-books (and, by extension, digital content on the Web) will be no exception. Hence the recurrent and current attempts at regulation.

Every new variant of content packaging was labeled as “dangerous” at its inception. The Church (formerly the largest publisher of bibles and other religious and “earthly” texts and the upholder and protector of reading in the Dark Ages) castigated and censored the printing of “heretical” books (especially the vernacular bibles of the Reformation) and restored the Inquisition for the specific purpose of controlling book publishing. In 1559, it published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“Index of Prohibited Books”). A few (mainly Dutch) publishers even went to the stake (a habit worth reviving, some current authors would say…). European rulers issued proclamations against “naughty printed books” (of heresy and sedition). The printing of books was subject to licencing by the Privy Council in England. The very concept of copyright arose out of the forced registration of books in the register of the English Stationer’s Company (a royal instrument of influence and intrigue). Such obligatory registration granted the publisher the right to exclusively copy the registered book (often, a class of books) for a number of years – but politically restricted printable content, often by force. Freedom of the press and free speech are still distant dreams in many corners of the earth. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the V-chip and other privacy invading, dissemination inhibiting, and censorship imposing measures perpetuate a veteran if not so venerable tradition.

The more it changes, the more it stays the same. If the history of the book teaches us anything it is that there are no limits to the ingenuity with which publishers, authors, and booksellers, re-invent old practices. Technological and marketing innovations are invariably perceived as threats – only to be adopted later as articles of faith. Publishing faces the same issues and challenges it faced five hundred years ago and responds to them in much the same way. Yet, every generation believes its experiences to be unique and unprecedented. It is this denial of the past that casts a shadow over the future. Books have been with us since the dawn of civilization, millennia ago. In many ways, books constitute our civilization. Their traits are its traits: resilience, adaptation, flexibility, self re-invention, wealth, communication. We would do well to accept that our most familiar artifacts – books – will never cease to amaze us.

Consider the e-book (electronic book): a computer file that contains text, images, and even audio and video and can be opened and read on dedicated devices (e-book readers) or on PCS, laptops, netbooks, PDAs, and mobile phones. But, is it a book?

UNESCO’s uninspiring, arbitrary, and ungrounded definition of “book” is:

“Non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers.”

But a book, above all else, is a medium. It encapsulates information (of one kind or another) and conveys it across time and space. Moreover, as opposed to common opinion, it is – and has always been – a rigidly formal affair. Even the latest “innovations” are nothing but ancient wine in sparkling new bottles.

Consider the scrolling protocol. Our eyes and brains are limited readers-decoders. There is only that much that the eye can encompass and the brain interpret. Hence the need to segment data into cognitively digestible chunks. There are two forms of scrolling – lateral and vertical. The papyrus, the broadsheet newspaper, and the computer screen are three examples of the vertical scroll – from top to bottom or vice versa. The e-book, the microfilm, the vellum, and the print book are instances of the lateral scroll – from left to right (or from right to left, in the Semitic languages).

In many respects, audio books are much more revolutionary than e-books. They do not employ visual symbols (all other types of books do), or a straightforward scrolling method. E-books, on the other hand, are a throwback to the days of the papyrus.  The text cannot be opened at any point in a series of connected pages and the content is carried only on one side of the (electronic) “leaf”. Parchment, by comparison, was multi-paged, easily browseable, and printed on both sides of the leaf. It led to a revolution in publishing and to the print book. All these advances are now being reversed by the e-book. Luckily, the e-book retains one innovation of the parchment – the hypertext. Early Jewish and Christian texts (as well as Roman legal scholarship) was written on parchment (and later printed) and included numerous inter-textual links. The Talmud, for example, is made of a main text (the Mishna) which hyperlinks on the same page to numerous interpretations (exegesis) offered by scholars throughout generations of Jewish learning.

Another distinguishing feature of books is portability (or mobility). Books on papyrus, vellum, paper, or PDA – are all transportable. In other words, the replication of the book’s message is achieved by passing it along and no loss is incurred thereby (i.e., there is no physical metamorphosis of the message). The book is like a perpetuum mobile. It spreads its content virally by being circulated and is not diminished or altered by it. Physically, it is eroded, of course – but it can be copied faithfully. It is permanent.

Not so the e-book or the CD-ROM. Both are dependent on devices (readers or drives, respectively). Both are technology-specific and format-specific. Changes in technology – both in hardware and in software – are liable to render many e-books unreadable. And portability is hampered by battery life, lighting conditions, or the availability of appropriate infrastructure (e.g., of electricity).

Every generation applies the same age-old principles to new “content-containers”. Every such transmutation yields a great surge in the creation of content and its dissemination. The incunabula (the first printed books) made knowledge accessible (sometimes in the vernacular) to scholars and laymen alike and liberated books from the scriptoria and “libraries” of monasteries. The printing press technology shattered the content monopoly. In 50 years (1450-1500), the number of books in Europe surged from a few thousand to more than 9 million! And, as McLuhan has noted, it shifted the emphasis from the oral mode of content distribution (i.e., “communication”) to the visual mode.

E-books are threatening to do the same. “Book ATMs” will provide Print on Demand (POD) services to faraway places. People in remote corners of the earth will be able to select from publishing backlists and front lists comprising millions of titles. Millions of authors are now able to realize their dream to have their work published cheaply and without editorial barriers to entry. The e-book is the Internet’s prodigal son. The latter is the ideal distribution channel of the former. The monopoly of the big publishing houses on everything written – from romance to scholarly journals – is a thing of the past. In a way, it is ironic. Publishing, in its earliest forms, was a revolt against the writing (letters) monopoly of the priestly classes. It flourished in non-theocratic societies such as Rome, or China – and languished where religion reigned (such as in Sumeria, Egypt, the Islamic world, and Medieval Europe).

With e-books, content will once more become a collaborative effort, as it has been well into the Middle Ages. Authors and audience used to interact (remember Socrates) to generate knowledge, information, and narratives. Interactive e-books, multimedia, discussion lists, and collective authorship efforts restore this great tradition. Moreover, as in the not so distant past, authors are yet again the publishers and sellers of their work. The distinctions between these functions is very recent. E-books and POD partially help to restore the pre-modern state of affairs. Up until the 20th century, some books first appeared as a series of pamphlets (often published in daily papers or magazines) or were sold by subscription. Serialized e-books resort to these erstwhile marketing ploys. E-books may also help restore the balance between best-sellers and midlist authors and between fiction and textbooks. E-books are best suited to cater to niche markets, hitherto neglected by all major publishers.

E-books are the quintessential “literature for the millions”. They are cheaper than even paperbacks. John Bell (competing with Dr. Johnson) published “The Poets of Great Britain” in 1777-83. Each of the 109 volumes cost six shillings (compared to the usual guinea or more). The Railway Library of novels (1,300 volumes) costs 1 shilling apiece only eight decades later. The price continued to dive throughout the next century and a half. E-books and POD are likely to do unto paperbacks what these reprints did to originals. Some reprint libraries specialized in public domain works, very much like the bulk of e-book offering nowadays.

The plunge in book prices, the lowering of barriers to entry due to new technologies and plentiful credit, the proliferation of publishers, and the cutthroat competition among booksellers was such that price regulation (cartel) had to be introduced. Net publisher prices, trade discounts, list prices were all anti-competitive inventions of the 19th century, mainly in Europe. They were accompanied by the rise of trade associations, publishers organizations, literary agents, author contracts, royalties agreements, mass marketing, and standardized copyrights.

The sale of print books over the Internet can be conceptualized as the continuation of mail order catalogues by virtual means. But e-books are different. They are detrimental to all these cosy arrangements. Legally, an e-book may not be considered to constitute a “book” at all. Existing contracts between authors and publishers may not cover e-books. The serious price competition they offer to more traditional forms of publishing may end up pushing the whole industry to re-define itself. Rights may have to be re-assigned, revenues re-distributed, contractual relationships re-thought. Moreover, e-books have hitherto been to print books what paperbacks are to hardcovers – re-formatted renditions. But more and more authors are publishing their books primarily or exclusively as e-books. E-books thus threaten hardcovers and paperbacks alike. They are not merely a new format. They are a new mode of publishing.

Every technological innovation was bitterly resisted by Luddite printers and publishers: stereotyping, the iron press, the application of steam power, mechanical typecasting and typesetting, new methods of reproducing illustrations, cloth bindings, machine-made paper, ready-bound books, paperbacks, book clubs, and book tokens. Without exception, they relented and adopted the new technologies to their considerable commercial advantage. It is no surprise, therefore, that publishers were hesitant to adopt the Internet, POD, and e-publishing technologies. The surprise lies in the relative haste with which they came to adopt it, egged on by authors and booksellers.