From an article in Inside Higer Ed that was written by a former Britannica employee.  Here are some excerpts:


To understand today’s Britannica announcement, it is necessary to recall the recent history of the company. Britannica has had a digital presence for many years, with early access to LexisNexis uses in 1981, a CD-ROM product in 1989, and a web based subscription encyclopedia available in 1994. In 1999 Encyclopaedia Britannica spun-off the division (which was later folded back into the parent company). was revolutionary because it was conceived of as a free, advertising based service which would make the full content of the encyclopedia available to everyone in the world who had a web connection. (Does this remind anyone of our current open education movement?)

The original idea for was a great one. Open up the full encyclopedia as a free, advertising supported website. Bolster the articles with multimedia, a curated Internet guide, community and discussion features, and fresh content. Advertisers would love because people would spend lots of time with the immersive and rich content, and the site would draw educated readers that would be likely to purchase goods online. Complement the consumer with subscription properties that did not have advertising, and that offered education specific products (such as standard correlated content), and the result would be a diversified set of lucrative revenue streams.

These ideas all made sense to me. They still make sense 13 years later. What happened was that was launched in 1999, and immediately got so much traffic that the site crashed (and stayed crashed for weeks). While the technology was eventually sorted out, the revenue model was not. could never figure out how to get enough compelling additional content into the site at costs that made any sense in relationship to the dollars that could be generated from advertising. Producing quality new content, and licensing multimedia materials, is very expensive – and the advertising market was not robust enough in 1999 or 2000 to support this plan.

A lot more in the article, which goes on to talk about lessons higher ed can learn from the Britannica history.  Thanks to Michael von Glahn for the link.


  1. I liked and used it, but they were fighting an uphill battle against Wikipedia. Despite excellent content on Britannica’s part, in many cases Wikipedia was “good enough” for readers and cost the organization nothing to produce. It’s hard to be compete as a commercial enterprise when your competition generates their goods for free.

  2. When I was a kid I had an insatiable hunger for knowledge, mostly of a scientific and geographic nature. I still do actually.
    We had a set of encyclopaedias from about 1940 in our house that I used to trawl through and for one of my early birthdays (well, when I was about 9) my mother bought me a ‘book of facts’. I drove the whole family nutz for the next three weeks as I regaled amazing unconnected facts to them throughout every meal.

    The contrast with today’s world, where I have instant access to almost the whole world’s knowledge, from Science to History and from politics to culture and anatomy, is quite quite incredible.

    EB did a great job for many years, but the planet and our society has changed beyond recognition.

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