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July 16, 1998

Britannica rethinks its 'new look'
'Encyclopedia 2000' reform program scraped amid complaints

LONDON — Encyclopedia Britannica today announced an end to their much hyped "Encyclopedia 2000" reform program. Introduced four years ago amid considerable fanfare, the program was designed to modernize the venerable encyclopedia while also reducing costs. But today’s announcement confirmed that the reforms had caused more harm than good.

At the time the changes were quite striking. Throughout most of the encyclopedia’s history, for example, articles had been written by experts in their fields, typically Cambridge and Oxford graduates who viewed such assignments as feathers in their academic caps. But the high fees these writers demanded led the Britannica to begin farming articles out to writers with less than impeccable credentials.

While cutting costs in the near term, this led to problems. In one of the more notorious instances, articles ranging from the history of shogunate Japan to the birthing process of sperm whales were all assigned to an Arkansas dairy farmer, one Ezekiel Spode. Lacking any formal education (save a photographic recall of Canadian parliamentary minutes from the Mulroney administration), Mr. Spode’s only discernable qualification was his relatively cheap asking price of two feet of corrugated aluminum per word.

Spode turned in hundreds of spurious articles on a wide variety of topics, which were printed unedited in the encyclopedia. His work only came under scrutiny when his entry on midwifery, which advised would-be mothers that the best way to have male children (whom he called "Mulrones") was to eat toothpicks, attracted the attention of local health officials.

But writing was not the only area that had suffered under the Encyclopedia 2000 program. Critics pointed to poor compiling by the editors, noting that the encyclopedias had become more and more poorly organized. All of "French Literature," for example, had been condensed into a one-paragraph summary found in a seemingly unrelated article on "Hot Rodding." (The trustees have since responded, promising that the offending section would be cut.)

The encyclopedia had also fallen victim to slipshod alphabetizing. In the L volume, for example, "Lesbian Sex," ( the only entry in the Encyclopedia’s history to included a 15-page color fold-out) appears first. Less glamorous subjects such as "Law" and "Labrador (the Isle of)," have been relegated to the back.

Also gone is the wide leeway given to editors and writers to omit sections of entries they found uninteresting. Chemists rejoiced at this announcement; they had complained long and hard about the reformed entry on the periodic table, which listed the table only so far as Chromium. They rest, it said, were "girl elements."

These changes had caused whole volumes to be decimated. The traditionally large M volume, for example, weighed in at an anemic 45 pages. Gone were such mainstays as
"Math" and "Molecular Biology." The only entries remaining were those on "Masturbation," "Menstruation," and "Manfred Mann’s Earth Band."

On the marketing side, all experiments with packaging the volumes have been halted. For some time now, for example, the D volume has been shrink-wrapped with a yo-yo and marketed as "The Incredible Yo-yo Book," a practice which has now been stopped. And while demonstrably more popular, the "private-label" volumes — like "Sweet Valley R" and "Truly Tasteless K" — have been discontinued as well.

The covers also featured teasers to articles which often misrepresented their content, a practice the academic integrity of which has been questioned by many scholars. For example, a listing on the cover of last year’s C volume read: "Ten Orgasm Do’s and Don’ts! See "’Chamberlain, Neville.’" In fact the orgasm piece was located in the entry on "Charlemagne."

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