There is no source of reference remotely as authoritative as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There is no brand as venerable and as veteran as this mammoth labor of knowledge and ideas established in 1768. It numbered the likes of Einstein and Freud among its authors. Dozens of classic articles written by such luminaries are available on the Britannica’s Web Site and included in its CD-ROM and DVD editions.
This is the tip of an iceberg of the revival of old reference works.
The full text of the venerable 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is now available online and is in the public domain. Regrettably, there is no CD-ROM or DVD to be had of this opus magnum written by the best minds at the turn of the 20th century. Nor can one download the Encyclopedia as separate compressed files. Additionally, the transcription is far from perfect with many an article either truncated or mysteriously divided. Still, it is a grand and welcome undertaking.
Another sorely needed contribution is the Jewish Encyclopedia online. The only other project of this scope, the Encyclopedia Judaica on CD-ROM will be withdrawn from the market by January 2006 and is anyhow incompatible with any operating system later than Windows ME.
Exactly like the Britannica, the Jewish Encyclopedia was compiled at the turn of the previous century and, therefore, lacks any coverage of the important events that took place in the life of the Jewish people – from the Holocaust to the State of Israel. But, with 4000 years of history to go on, the Jewish Encyclopedia is still a vast, indispensable, and deeply researched resource. It is also better adapted to the technological constraints of the Web. Still, it, too, offers no way of acquiring the whole work: no CD-ROM or DVD, no downloadable compressed files.
By far the best among the three is the Catholic Encyclopedia. The 1904 edition of this magnificent work of reference is fully and freely available online. The commercial CD-ROM includes all 11,600 articles (which I found to be surprisingly objective and free of religious bias). But both the Web site and the CD contain reams of additional material: from the writings of the Church Fathers to numerous foundational texts in the history of Catholicism.
The Web site itself is rich, easy to navigate, expertly done – but not cluttered or cutesy. The CD is a faithful rendition of the Encyclopedia’s Web presence – yet not a mere mirror. It takes advantage of search and other CD-only features and is user-friendly, not resource-hogging, easy to install and to run even on the Windows 98 SE 1996 laptop I used as a worst-scenario test bench.
Why are people so interested in the outdated and outmoded reference, typically rendered obsolete by subsequent research?
Nostalgia is part of the answer. These works of reference are refreshingly direct, politically incorrect, opinionated, and innocently naive. They are reminiscent of another, more promising, age. Curiosity is another reason. What did our forefathers know or thought they knew about heredity, nationalism, the atom, the Jews, and germs? It is startling to discover both how far we have progressed and how much we have forgotten.
Then there is the trivia. Mountains of little-known facts about long-forgotten people, countries, politics, arts, and crafts. It is the closest we can get to time-travel and, so it seems, equally exciting. By exploring our roots, we get to know ourselves and in this narcissistic age and civilization – who can resist such a proposition?