Six of the best promise boundless knowledge with e-library

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They had a dream. Six world-renowned universities and cultural institutions aimed to launch a premier site for knowledge and education on the web.

The idea came from Columbia University, and spread, as good ideas do, like wildfire.  Soon some of the best brains in the world were involved in creating this global public library: the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, Smithsonian Insitution’s Museum of Natural History, and the New York Public Library all helped develop this international collaboration. Now Fathom.com is a reality, and by the summer it will be running at full strength.

Like all good notions, it is essentially simple – for the user, that is. Input the key words to select your area of interest, and you are effortlessly connected to the world’s knowledge on your chosen subject. Whether you wish to know more about international tensions in the global age, to read a research paper by an academic or a personal interview with Dorothy Parker – it’s all at hand, and free.

Professor Stephen Hill, pro director of LSE, spoke to CRM-Forum: “The information is accessible to anyone with a bright enquiring mind, and any information which is free at the moment, is free on Fathom. This is a portal as well as a destination site, and it will be a major repository of knowledge and content for education.”

From the core group of six not-for-profit institutions, others will join, and the scope will widen.  Public lectures will become available, and eventually a small charge will be made for some items, but any money will be ploughed back into the enterprise to support core activities.

The idea has generated considerable excitement. “This shows the power of the public sector,” said Prof Hill. “We found people to put some money in, and more will follow. We will get the high class institutions and Fathom.com could become the first stop shop for universal knowledge. Who knows, it could go anywhere.”

Central to Fathom will be a wealth of free content usually only available on university campuses and at leading museums and libraries. This will include multimedia lectures, seminars, databases, publication and performances in a range of subjects such as business, law, economics, social sciences, medicine, computer science and technology, the arts, journalism and physics. The world, as they say, is your oyster.

Much of Fathom’s content has never been available outside the participating institutions. During the year-long development, partners have invested invaluable intellectual assets and substantial financial resources. An experienced internet team, headed up by president and CEO Ann Kirschner, Ph.D., managed the business, overseen by a distinguished board of directors of international business executives and by an academic council of leading scholars and researchers.

“Fathom is far more than another distance learning site, said Dr Kirschner. “We are creating a vibrant main street for knowledge and education. We intend to go beyond the current limits of information sites scattered across the web and beyond online initiatives from individual schools.”

Courses for distance learning will be one of the offerings, but learning is not limited to the classroom and the many other types of content provided through Fathom will give a more complete and accessible context for knowledge. “We believe that Fathom will define the transformation of the online learning category into a broader, interactive knowledge marketplace”, said Dr Kirschner.

By providing global access to these resources, Fathom holds the promises of knowledge without boundaries and offers a new medium for the exchange of ideas. It points to a future where the acquisition and application of knowledge can be independent of economic status, time constraints and geographic location, according to Dr Kirschner. Users will be able to access online courses through Fathom, with tuition fees, accreditation, and admission policies set at the discretion of the offering university of cultural institution.

Fathom’s content in development includes:

*An oral history research project that includes 7,000 personal interviews, conducted over 50 years, with leaders from business, politics, and the arts, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Nikita Khrushchev, and Jimmy Stewart (from Columbia University).

*An overview of the provocative new science of astrobiology, which brings together molecular life sciences, space exploration, planetary science and the search for extraterrestrials, by astronomer Dr Simon Mitton (from Cambridge University Press, which also plans to publish extracts from books which can be ordered on-line).

*A talk of the Weightless Economy, the shift from a world of manufacturing to a world of weightless services, by economist Professor Danny Quah (from LSE)

*Multimedia presentations that bring to life treasured objects, from the Magna Carta to the Lindisfarne Gospels (from the British Library)

*A collection of over 54,000 photographic views of New York City that mark its development of the city, its architectural achievements, transportation system, and ethnic and cultural diversity (from the New York Public Library).

“The fit between the Fathom business model, the vast intellectual capital of the founding partners, and the talented management team in place at Fathom is exactly what you want to see when forging a vibrant new space on the net,” said Michael Crow, Ph.D., Columbia University executive vice provost.

In addition to Dr Crow and Dr Kirschner, Fathom’s international board of directors will include former chairman of Goldman Sachs Stephen Friedman, commissioner of the National  Basketball Association David Stern, chairman of Enterprise LSE and former director of Shell International Keith Macrell, and chairman and CEO of MBNA Corporation Alfred Lerner.

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