CHICAGO -- Encyclopaedia Britannica, by legend at the top of the knowledge pyramid but nearly toppled by the information age, radically changed course yesterday by offering its mammoth compendium of knowledge on the Internet -- for free.
"This is as momentous a change as when we moved from England to Chicago 75 years ago," said Kent Devereaux, senior vice president of product development and editorial on the digital side of the publishing house.
The announcement reflects a shift in direction with significant cultural implications, particularly for a nation where the presence of a set of Britannicas, however dated, once signaled a family's passage through the portals of intellect.
"This is an important symbolic question," said Charles Adams, a professor of English at Whittier College whose specialty is media and their impact on culture.
"I understand the encyclopedia as a symbol of cultural attainment in America. It was the portal and they simply don't have that anymore. I think we're losing something for the kids who curled up with the volume 'Q,' just looking at the Q words.
"But my students look at me funny when I say things like this. They are completely comfortable with information being electronic and being on a screen."
The 231-year-old publisher, widely recognized as presenting the world's strongest encyclopedia, is betting that its platinum reputation for accuracy will eventually translate into profits through advertising aimed at a discerning, educated and eager marketplace.
"Two things come out of what we are doing: We are embracing the future," Devereaux said. "We intend to be able to deliver trusted, aggregated, intelligent information and content to users by any means necessary, not only on the Internet, but down the road into wireless Palm
Pilot applications and WebTV."
Britannica's long dependence on the sales of books will be replaced with an advertising strategy aimed at connecting literate, financially comfortable users with advertisers looking for high-quality targets for their goods and services.
The bet inside Britannica's Chicago headquarters is that the institution's reputation will hold great value in the cacaphonous Internet world, where much information escapes the traditional editing, checks and balances of the publishing industry.
Britannica's move is an attempt to tap its respected brand and sell quality information as a business response to that problem.
The early response was strong. Britannica said that its Web site received millions of hits yesterday -- so many that access was temporarily blocked. The company expected to clear up the problems by the end of the day.
Outside the company, where the enthusiasm for an electronic, lively and constantly changeable encyclopedia is not yet running at fever pitch, the announcement ran into some skepticism and a strong dose of reality checking.
"I don't think they have a choice. I think they have to try it," said Michael Godwin, an attorney and author of "Cyber Rights, Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age," who keeps a close eye on the information industry from his office in Washington.
"I don't know whether it is going to work or not, but we do know that the traditional market for an encyclopedia is just vanishing. We are living in a rich informational environment. Developing it as a Web product makes more sense than printing books."
Whether it can make money, one of the new objectives at Britannica, which lost its not-for-profit foundation status when it was sold to a foreign investor several years ago, is another question.
A Britannica spokesman said the company will spend $35 million on advertising over the next year and is willing to suffer a few years of losses to gather the market it needs to make money selling advertising.
It will continue to print its encyclopedia, but the future of the book version will be determined by the publisher's success with its Internet effort, according to a spokesman.
The new service won't stop at the encyclopedia. News, sports, weather and access to a big collection of magazine archives will also be offered at the Web site, www.britannica.com.
Britannica has enlisted 75 magazines and will offer access to their libraries, along with developing chat rooms and specific Web sites connected to panels of experts on thousands of subjects.
Britannica editors vet its new information partners for accuracy, a spokesman said. No one gets to participate without the imprimatur of the editorial gatekeepers.
The Washington Post provides news services, updated 20 times a day. Those articles will be linked to the encyclopedia's vast database of historical information. The spokesman said Britannica wanted to move beyond the basic Associated Press news coverage embraced by other Internet competitors.
"We are targeting people who are in college or who have gone to college," said Jorge Cauz, Britannica's senior vice president for marketing. He said Britannica is not viewing itself as a homework site for ambitious high school students, but as an emerging information provider for a marketplace that is 25 or older, spends money and is well educated.
"We are trying to reach people who are intellectually curious, tend to understand the difference between good quality content and generic content. It is a way of presenting information that is very unique to Britannica," he said.
Britannica, which had its best year in 1990 when it collected $650 million in revenues and employed a staff -- including door-to-door salespeople -- that totaled about 3,500, has seen its business collapse over the past decade as the public taste for its handsome, leather-bound, $1,500 editions first shifted and then all but disappeared.
The publisher moved from sales of about 100,000 copies of its encyclopedia in the mid- to-late 1980s to the point at which the printed version is now outsold by the deeply discounted CD-ROM versions used in home computers.
By 1994, sales of the book had fallen to $453 million and Britannica found itself in a battle with new technology. Microsoft released its Encarta encyclopedia in 1993, and the nature of encyclopedia publishing began to change overnight.
As part of the publishing decline, Britannica flopped about searching for new missions, offering its information for a fee over the Internet or compressing its thousands of pages onto computer discs, which were overpriced in a market now crowded with CD-ROM encyclopedias. But even that technology became dated as the sophistication of the Internet developed.
At the end of 1995, the William Benton Foundation, which owned Britannica, announced it would sell the encyclopedia to a little-known Swiss-based investor, Jacob E. Safra, who owns vineyards and is the nephew of multibillionaire banker and gold trader Edmond Safra.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.