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Running Encyclopaedia Britannica on Linux

By Silas Brown

Encyclopaedia Britannica is a commercial encyclopedia and is therefore non-free, but old versions of the CDs and DVDs can often be purchased cheaply in second-hand markets. Of particular interest are the 2004 editions, as its publishers have made available an unofficial Linux support script for 2004 editions of Britannica (the Windows installer does not yet work on WINE). If you follow their instructions, you can expect to see the basic encyclopedia articles and images, but you might have a more difficult time with the Webster dictionary entries and some of the multimedia.

The instructions tell you to download version 1.3.1 of the Java Runtime Environment, and the script refuses to run on any other version. Nowadays we're up to at least version 1.6, and it can be difficult to find the old 1.3.1 version. However, if you edit their script and comment out the version check (at the time of writing it's on line 112 of linux-launch2.0.pl), you should find that most things work on newer versions.

You also need to set the JAVA_HOME environment variable. If you're not sure, try setting it to /usr. I added $ENV{JAVA_HOME} = "/usr"; to the linux-launch2.0.pl file itself, and also deleted the "Enter location of the Britannica Software" question and replaced it with a hard-coded location so I can launch it more quickly.

Large print

Unfortunately the preferences dialog doesn't work, and manually editing the preferences file has limited success when it comes to adjusting the font size. It may seem you're stuck with the default small-sized fonts, and you have to copy and paste the text elsewhere if you want to read it larger. However, if all else fails, you can use VNC for magnification. To set this up:

sudo apt-get install x11vnc xtightvncviewer vnc4server
vncpasswd   # give yourself a password
cat > .vnc/xstartup <<EOF
x11vnc -display :1 -rfbport 5902 -forever -scale 2:nb &
xsetroot -solid grey
exec $HOME/britannica/linux-launch2.0.pl
chmod +x .vnc/xstartup

and then to run it:

vncserver :1 -geometry 700x560 -depth 16  # this is about the minimum dimensions for EB
sleep 2  # allow x11vnc to start
xtightvncviewer :2 -passwd $HOME/.vnc/passwd -geometry 1275x720 # (adjust this for your desktop)
killall Xvnc4

xtightvncviewer tends to have better display-update logic than straight xvncviewer.

One disadvantage of this approach is that you can't copy text from articles and paste them into other applications that are outside of the VNC server. This appears to be a limitation of x11vnc. If you want to copy text then you'll have to run Encyclopaedia Britannica without magnification.


There has been much debate about how Britannica compares with Wikipedia, and I won't go into that too much. Suffice to say that you can't expect any encyclopedia to be absolutely perfect; after all they are all human creations, just like software, so you will need to keep your head about you when using any of them. Wikipedia tends to be more up-to-date and covers some areas that Britannica does not, but Britannica tends to give you more of that "finished product" feeling: you won't spend your time sifting through work in progress, or finding articles that look more like the fallout of a heated debate than something that belongs in the quiet back room of a traditional reference library. If you sometimes get tired of the noisier wiki atmosphere[clarification needed] then you might want to add Britannica to your reading at times.


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[BIO] Silas Brown is a legally blind computer scientist based in Cambridge UK. He has been using heavily-customised versions of Debian Linux since 1999.

Copyright © 2011, Silas Brown. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article.

Published in Issue 186 of Linux Gazette, June 2011