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Britannica Ditches Print, Beefs Up Digitally

Encyclopedia Britannica’s online version offers multimedia and built-in features for students.

Students can learn about and track their loans online.

Students can learn about and track their loans online.

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Encyclopedia Britannica stopped the presses on its biennial reference books in March 2012, triggering a wave of nostalgia for the 32-volume set.

"I spent many hundreds of hours with those gold-embossed Britannica volumes on my lap, flipping through the tissue-thin pages and squinting at the 9-point font," author A.J. Jacobs writes in the New York Times. Jacobs's memoir chronicles his quest to read the all 33,000 pages of the encyclopedia.

While Britannica closed the book on its print edition after a 244-year run, the digital version of the encyclopedia is alive and kicking—and has been for nearly two decades.

Britannica's digital offerings include a dozen mobile apps and a subscription-based website, as well as limited content available online without a fee. But online databases aren't always an option, especially for students in rural areas.

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"The digital divide is real: Not every student has reliable access to the Internet," Stephanie Rosalia, librarian at NEST+m, a public school in New York City, writes in the Times. "Whether it's a question of economics or of infrastructure, there are many students who have no access to computers or to the high-speed broadband that media-dense Web sites require."

Print loyalists who can make the move to the digital encyclopedia will find photos, audio interviews, animations, an interactive atlas, and primary source documents.

"When you go to an article on Mark Twain, for example, you're going to be able to read all of his books right there ... You're reading about Abe Lincoln, you can see the letters that he wrote during the Civil War," says Michael Ross, senior vice president and general manager of Britannica Digital Learning, the company's online education division.

The additional resources help students gain a deeper understanding of the topics they're researching, but finding their way back to a specific page can be tricky, says Susi Grissom, a librarian at the William B. Travis Vanguard Academy for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas.

"Students can sometimes get lost within the databases while following the links to additional articles or resources," Grissom says.

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Still, the "additional content" feature of Britannica's online edition is one of the most useful features for students, she says.

Here's a rundown of some of the more intuitive features for students, teachers, and librarians:

1. Personal workspace: Teachers and students can save images, articles, and other research material to their personal folders within the site and access it from any computer by logging into Britannica.

The workspace helps teachers build lesson plans, and allows students to store research for projects or presentations, Grissom says. This comes in handy for Travis students, who complete a new research project every six weeks, she adds.

"Our students are constantly searching for information to evaluate and use for all of these projects," Grissom says. "Workspace is a real time saver."

2. Built-ins: Bibliographies can be tedious work, but few teachers allow students to turn in a research paper without citing their sources. Instead of memorizing the nuances of Chicago Style versus Harvard style, students can export citations in four different formats.

Britannica added the citation formats in response to feedback from students and teachers using the site, says Ross, general manager of digital learning. The site also has a built-in dictionary, so users can double-click on any word to get the definition.

3. Copyright-cleared: All of the videos and images on Britannica's online edition are downloadable and copyright-cleared, so students can embed multimedia from the site directly into their presentations, Ross says.

Taking the guesswork out of image permissions makes the life easier for students, says Grissom, from the Dallas high school.

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"The fact that these images are copyright-cleared is a good selling point from the librarian's perspective," she says.