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Look it up: How is a 250-year-old encyclopedia company adapting to the digital age?

Molly Wood Dec 13, 2018
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Encyclopedia Britannica on the shelf at the New York Public Library in 2012.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

This week, Encyclopedia Britannica celebrates its 250th birthday. That’s remarkable, but what may be more surprising is the simple fact that it’s still around. The company went fully digital six years ago. No more tomes on shelves.

That pivot is part of the company’s history of being pretty revolutionary. When it began, Encyclopedia Britannica’s founders published in English instead of Latin, making it a resource for the masses. Today, given that pretty much everyone gets most of their information on the internet, Encyclopedia Britannica is inserting itself online, wherever possible, to provide context and stay relevant.

Britannica CEO Karthik Krishnan says the company’s strategy around delivering its product comes down to this: “Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we want to take information to them,” he says.

One example is Britannica Insights, a Chrome browser extension. When a user does a web search, the Britannica extension offers relevant information and context on the topic.

Another online partnership developed when YouTube reached out to Britannica. It requested help combatting false information on topics like the moon landing and the Malaysian Airlines disappearance. So Britannica started a “What’s Known, What’s Unknown” platform for YouTube users.

“We believe in free speech,” Krishnan says, and Britannica doesn’t want to prevent people from sharing information. “But how do we provide people context? We can definitely work on finding the right medium to engage with people. That’s our job.”

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