It looks like Encyclopaedia Britannica, for hundreds of years the first name you thought of when the word 'encyclopaedia' was mentioned until Wikipedia came along and kicked sand in its face, is about to change.

Sure, EB has changed rather a lot since it first saw the light of day in 1768. Not least in facing the challenges that the growth of the Internet brought with it. I recall being at the official press lunch at The Ivy restaurant in London many years ago to mark the launch of the online version of the encyclopaedia for example.

Many will ask if all the effort has really been worth it though, as EB continues to be a slow to update source of reference. The publishers will argue that speed of update is not as important as the definitive quality of the source material, of course, and they have a point. Unfortunately it is a point that is totally lost on the Wikipedia generation who want their knowledge fast and free, and if they can throw their opinion onto the page all the better.

Which is why Wikipedia has become the undoubted market leader in the world of reference material, the real world that is of ordinary people rather than the slightly more exclusive and fragile world of academia I should point out.

Anyway, it seems that EB is considering bringing readers into the updating process to help keep the thing current after all. There is talk of 'contributing experts' and reader content to expand online entries, which all sounds very, well, Wikipedia-ish to me. But EB insists it is not so, and that there are no plans to let too many people act as contributors.

Encyclopaedia Britannica President, Jorge Cauz, says "We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable 'wisdom of the crowds' - We believe that the creation and documentation of knowledge is a collaborative process but not a democratic one."

It all sounds a bit confusing to me, with user generated content sitting alongside 'Britannica Checked' content online. That said, it has to be better than Google Knol and will probably fare better than other Wikipedia competitors.

Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica's staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and often much more comprehensive.

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