New York - Encyclopedias have been around for 2,000 years, but websites like the online Encyclopaedia Iranica are reinventing them.
Instead of leafing at random through a bound volume of the encyclopedia for interesting articles, the reader can click on any of hundreds of featured entries that pop up randomly on the online version's home page (see the Encyclopaedia Iranica website), two at a time, whenever the home page is refreshed.
Instead of being limited to entries from A to H in the bound volumes - the 15th of a projected 35 or more volumes is due out soon - the student can glean information from the bottom half of the alphabet as entries are written. (About 800 of the encyclopedia's nearly 8,000 articles are online only.)
Instead of juggling and struggling with multiple volumes to read related articles, the researcher can jump from one to another with a click.
And the price is right. The online encyclopedia is free, at least for now. The print version of the Encyclopaedia Iranica is available for $250 per bound volume ($340 each for the first five volumes); at current prices, the projected 35 volumes in the complete first edition would cost $9,200.
Ehsan Yarshater, a professor emeritus at Columbia University who founded the encyclopedia project, said he does not want to impose a fee for the online version that might prevent universities and researchers around the world, especially in developing countries, from having access to the information.
VIDEO: Profile of Ehsan Yarshater
Ali Ahmadi Motlagh, the encyclopedia's manager for digital publication, said the website, redesigned this year, allows the encyclopedia to do things it wasn't originally designed to do. With years to go before the encyclopedia's first edition is complete, some of its older articles are being updated in the online version. The home page provides links to Iran-related news and events. Searches are becoming easier.
"You have a project that wasn't started during the Web age. It was started in the '70s, and you have to sort of transfer into the digital medium. So the transferring of that is always very difficult," Motlagh said.
One of his main chores arises from the fact that the encyclopedia is in English but so many of its entries are for Persian and Arabic words and names. Even frequent users of the encyclopedia might have trouble matching the transliterations that the encyclopedia uses, so Motlagh said alternative spellings are being added to the online version "on a daily basis," along with the appropriate tags, or search terms, so that articles can be found more easily. The site also allows searches by author, and readers "can also just go through alphabetically," Motlagh said. "That's the easiest way sometimes, if you can't find the article: just go under the alphabet, where you have the whole menu."
The Web pages are attractive but spare, designed to load easily; article pages open without images, which are accessible with one click, first as thumbnails and then larger. Motlagh said that although that might be a particular advantage in places such as Iran where the speed of Internet connections is limited, "the simplicity helps everybody. It's not intended for a particular audience. It's that generally, with the Internet, no matter how fast your Internet is, if the page is filled with images it is still going to load slowly."
The website draws about 2,000 distinct visitors each month, and Motlagh said that number should rise as other educational sites link to it.
About America.gov: U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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