Future shock for Britannica oveyr 2

It was launched in Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, and lived on through the American, French and Industrial revolutions. But now the 227-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica may finally have met its match: the information age.

The world's oldest continually published encyclopaedia in the English language has been given another reminder that the era of using hard-pitching door-to-door salesmen to sell their tomes is well and truly over. It needs new investors to help it compete in cyberspace, or it may be forced to sell.

"We need capital and are confident we can secure it," the Chicago-based company said in a brief statement. "Technology and the information age have radically transformed our landscape, and will require our company to make a significant transition from our historical past."

For two centuries the beautifully-bound 32-volume publication has provided the definitive answers for crossword enthusiasts, students and academics around the globe, and been a status symbol on the shelves of wannabe intellectuals.

But sales have been hit by competition from electronic editions of encyclopaedias - for example, Groliers and Comptons - which often come free as CD-ROMS with the purchase of new computers.

"How do you sell somebody an encyclopedia that costs thousands of dollars when they are getting one for $100 or for free in the box with their new computers?" asked Kenneth Kister, the Florida-based publisher of Kister's Concise Guide to Best Encyclopaedias.

The company, which is owned by the William Benton Foundation, a privately held charitable trust, says it is looking for additional capital, either through joint venture partners or outside investors. It may even seek a new owner, it says.