Venture Aims to Offer Reliable Citations on Web

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six prestigious international universities and cultural institutions will announce today that they have formed a company to sell knowledge and education on the Internet, a move that could be a model for courting lifelong learners.

The partnership among Columbia University, London School of Economics and Political Science, the British Library, Cambridge University Press, Smithsonian Institution and New York Public Library will bring expertise and a vast amount of new information to its Fathom Web site. Operations are set to begin later this year.

The site will seek to address one of the most serious weaknesses of the Internet, its founders said: the reliability of information on the Web.

All of Fathom's original content will be authenticated and its standards of editorial integrity monitored by the company's academic council, a panel of senior professors and curators from the participating institutions.

"It is our ambition to be identified as the place to go if you want to have authoritative information on topics across the board," said George Rupp, Columbia's president. "You have a whole range of useful information that would be calibrated by our best scholars."

Much of the information Fathom will provide has never been available outside the participating institutions.

Columbia University will contribute major selections from its oral history project, one of the largest archives in the world.

Taped interviews range from a discussion with writer Dorothy Parker to memoirs from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus--who describes his conversations with President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis.

In a unique and moving memoir, psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner recollects seeing Nazi soldiers marching into Vienna in the 1930s.

The New York Public Library will give the site 54,000 photographs marking the historical, cultural and architectural development of New York City.

Among offerings from the London School of Economics will be a lecture by professor Danny Quah on the "weightless economy," the shift from a world of manufacturing to a world of weightless services.

The British Library will have multimedia presentations bringing to life such treasured objects as the Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels, priceless 7th century illuminated manuscripts taken to London by Henry VIII. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History will survey North America's endangered mammals.

Many of the seminars, lectures, databases, performances and publications offered by Fathom will be free. But charges will occur as users move deeper into the content.

The decision by Columbia to seek other elite partners to form a for-profit company came, officials said, after considerable research, development and soul-searching. What officials at the university's upper Manhattan campus did not want to do was dilute the undergraduate core curriculum or campus life by offering inexpensive, mass education for a degree on the Internet.

Columbia already had a strong digital base to build upon. The university's innovative Center for New Media Teaching and Learning had developed highly original digital tools to aid instruction on campus.

At the same time, Columbia was seeking to capitalize on the $2-billion-a-year U.S. market for distance learning--projected to grow to $6 billion a year by 2003.

"This is a very big business. We really are aimed at the worldwide market, which we think ultimately may be bigger outside the United States," said Ann Kirschner, president and chief executive of Fathom. "Our goal is to make Fathom the place you think of when you think you've got to learn something."

Kirschner has a Ph.D. in English literature and started new media activities for the National Football League. According to Michael Crow, Columbia's executive vice provost, she was hired to help provide "a balance between entrepreneurial drive and academic vision and the sanctity of the authentication process."

In addition to offering original content and context, Fathom hopes to make money through referral fees--steering site users to courses offered by other academic institutions--commissions on the sales of textbooks, periodicals, documents and a wide variety of learning tools. Another potential source of revenue is sponsorships for special forums on the Web site.

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