My former boss at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Robert McHenry, has written an informal history of Britannica Online. McHenry was editor in chief of Britannica during most of my (short) tenure there, then in various reorganizations became a kind of institutional Odysseus; he now has his own consultancy. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and a stunningly precise writer. The three years I spent working with him were some of the most intense, and memorable, of my life.
The piece is long on the technical history of Britannica Online, but there’s also some stuff on the politics surrounding its creation and marketing. It’s sort of a prequel to my article on the impact of electronic publishing on the work of the encyclopaedia, and the development of the Britannica CD timelines.
The history of Britannica is part tragedy, part farce: on one hand, the company has managed to attract some extremely smart editors who remain very loyal to the place, but at the managerial and strategy level, its performance has made Xerox PARC’s failure to capitalize on its early innovative work in personal computing look puny. (I was a manager, but worked in the editorial division, so I’m an odd hybrid.) One day its recent history will be told, I hope.