At the turn of the century, the African American intellectual and activist W E B Du Bois had a dream: an encyclopaedia of Africa and people of African descent, Africana. Now that dream is coming true. Two Harvard academics - Dr Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr, chairman of Afro-American Studies, and Dr Kwame Anthony Appiah - have persuaded Microsoft to publish Encarta Africana.
It is part of an all-round push by Microsoft's reference division, and it promises to have broad appeal for people of African descent worldwide, not just in the United States - in fact anyone who wants an insight into the multi-ethnic society in which they live.
Briefing British journalists in Seattle over the summer, project manager Evette Gee said: "It will be the most comprehensive and authoritative record of Africa and American African history."
"For the first time, the story of Africa and its people will be told in a way never before possible - through images, video, music and text brought together in a unique experience," says Dr Gates.
Scheduled for release in February, Encarta Africana will have the same design, organisational style and features of its parent product, Encarta 98. Its on-screen timeline starts four million years ago. You can learn about Lucy, the 3 to 4 million-year-old skeleton found in Ethiopia, or the ancient ruins of Zimbabwe. Then there is the global impact of the slave trade and the African diaspora, in which Britain played a pivotal part and which, in turn, is still shaping this country.
Of course, there will also be a wide range of cultural, artistic and sporting contributions, with video presentations from the likes of the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and author and poet Maya Angelou. Content - more than 3,000 detailed articles and 2,000 photos, videos, soundclips, maps and charts - is being "guided" by a group of leading US academics called Afropaedia.
Microsoft is determined that Africana should be the reference work of first choice for students and researchers of the black experience. And its announcement has attracted a lot of interest. "Its very existence shows how far black people have come since W E B Du Bois first dreamed of an Encyclopedia Africana at the start of this century," says the Rev Jesse Jackson, chief executive of the National Rainbow CoalitionOperation Push. "It's great to have a product that shines light on the rich truth of black life, which our society has too long left in the shadows."
Just how relevant Africana will be to the British black experience depends on the sensitivity and resources of the production team. Otherwise, there will be a second, UKversion.
But Microsoft's record in this area is impressive. Initial British reactions to the first edition of Encarta were muted. Schools were not overly impressed by its US bias, so Microsoft agreed that the disk should be "localised" for the British market.
It hired Websters of London for the job; its large team of researchers and editors work full-time with an editorial advisory board, chaired by Lord Asa Briggs, to make sure that Microsoft's reference CD-Roms are properly tailored for the UK and "World English" market (including Australia and New Zealand). Masses of UK-specific articles and multimedia items have been added over the years.
The same care was taken with the Encarta World Atlas. The extra detail in the new versions means that most of us will now be able to do what we really, really want - click the mouse and say "That's where I live."
The sheer mass of intellectual property now held by Microsoft is reminiscent of those 1970s sci-fi films of faceless corporations taking over the world, something not lost on Microsoft-haters. But when you hear anecdotes of US admirals using Encarta World Atlas to brief officers on board ships in the Persian Gulf because it has better data than their own charts, you realise that world dominance might have happened already.
Merlin John Microsoft next month launches the UK editions of Encarta World Atlas 99 (Pounds 49.99) and Encarta Encyclopedia 99 (standard Pounds 49. 99, de luxe Pounds 79.99), Bookshelf 99(dictionary, thesaurus, quotes, translation guides, Pounds 49.99) and the Encarta Reference Suite 99 (Encyclopedia 99 de luxe, World Atlas 99, Bookshelf 99, Pounds 99.99)