When I recently met Jorge Cauz, the Mexican-born, Chicago-based president of Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) Inc, I had to put aside a schoolboy romance with the musty smell of burgundy-coloured hardback volumes in the school library, and the weightiness of the wealth of knowledge on nearly everything that they carried, to discuss the reinvention of EB, which is still a work in progress.
What happens to a business when what you sold for centuries as a premium product is suddenly available free? That's what happened to EB in the mid-1990s.
Just like computers destroyed typewriters, CDs helped take the romance out of EB - even though there was a honeymoon period when EB itself was sold as an affordable premium product in CDs. Then came Microsoft, and offered the rival Encarta encyclopaedia as a freebie in CDs, and the world changed for Britannica, the sun over its knowledge empire setting in a swish of technology.
The Empire has struck back. EB is now available as a freemium site (www.eb.com) in which some stuff is free but the detailed, quality stuff is paid for. But that is not where its story lies. As much as 96% of EB's revenues come not from the "casual knowledge seeker" but the education business by suitably packaging the excess of its content through the reliable team of editors it controls for specific age groups. This Cauz calls the "K to 12" (kindergarten to 12th standard) market.
It faces competition from the ubiquitous socially-created online Wikipedia, which Cauz once said will "decline into a hulking, mediocre mass of uneven, unreliable, and, many times, unreadable articles." That might have been a nasty remark but the fact is that solid research, accountability and editing are well worth paying for.
In the age of social media, EB is experimenting with a process under which it co-opts talented people to join in as casual experts to contribute over the Internet and work with its team of editors, Cauz said.
Technology, which put EB in difficulty, may yet rescue EB from the mess by combining the best of social technology with the best of its expertise.