Still Offers Free Encyclopedia

By: Charles Bowen

As more providers of reference materials follow’s lead and begin charging fees for their online data, cost-conscious newsrooms and newspaper readers have begun to search for Web-based reference book alternatives. For my money — that is, for saving my money — you can’t beat and its flagship, The Columbia Encyclopedia, still online as a free service to all comers.

The encyclopedia site — an electronic extension of the work’s printed edition, which was launched in the 1920s by Clarke Fisher Ansley and the Columbia University Press as “first aid” for those who read — offers 51,000 entries and 81,000 cross references. This is not the multimedia showcase of Britannica and some of its imitators, but all told, the Columbia Encyclopedia contains 6.5 million words on a huge range of topics and the price certainly is right.

To use the resource, visit the site at, where the introductory screen is topped with a search engine. The site then displays pages summarizing articles containing the search phrases, each with a hyperlinked headline and a few lines of description. Click any of the headlines to see the entire article.

The encyclopedia also can be browsed by its alphabetic index of entries. Scroll the introductory screen to the bottom to find the index with its hyperlinked entry points. Click the section of alphabet you wish to view and similar links on resulting pages to reach the portion of the index you want to explore. All articles in the encyclopedia are arranged alphabetically with each heading in boldface type.

Note that names that include “de,” “van,” “von” and the like are filed using the most common portion of the name. So the composer Ludwig van Beethoven is enter as “Beethoven, Ludwig van,” while the painter Vincent Van Gogh is filed as “Van Gogh, Vincent,” with a cross-reference from “Gogh, Vincent Van.” The method also is used for family articles. The Bach family article, for instance, contains subheads for seven members, with cross-references to separate articles on Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Christian Bach.

Information provided in one article generally is not repeated in another, using cross-referencing instead with extensive use of hyperlinks to make moving about the encyclopedia easier. Also, bibliographies appear at the end of many articles, listing authors and types of related books available for additional information.

Other considerations for using this and other features in your writing and editing:

1. dates almost to the beginning of the World Wide Web itself. The site started as a personal research experiment by Steven H. van Leeuwen in 1993 and was the first Web site to publish a complete classic book (Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”) in 1994. It was incorporated as a privately held company in 1999. Nowadays it features a searchable database of more than 370,000 Web pages. The site attracted more than 15 million unique users last year.

2. Besides the Columbia Encyclopedia, the site also offers free access to the American Heritage Dictionary, one of the Web’s largest databases of quotations (more than 86,000 entries) as well as the largest freely available verse database (more than 10,000 poems). Also online is the King James Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the 70-volume Harvard Classics and Shelf of Fiction.

3. Note that the main introductory page ( provides a group of search engines designed for targeting of reference, version, fiction, or nonfiction. It also offers quick links to all its major reference works from a central navigation bar.

To see Bowen’s last 10 columns, click here. Previous columns may be purchased in our paid archives. Search for “Bowen” in the “Author” field.

Follow by Email
Visit Us

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *