At the turn of the century, W.E.B. Du Bois proposed an ambitious project: the creation of an Encyclopedia Africana, a comprehensive history of Africa and people of African descent throughout the world.

Du Bois, a black intellectual and civil rights pioneer, believed a compendium of black knowledge would help defeat racism by cataloging blacks' contributions to civilization. He was never able to raise the funds for his project.Nearly 90 years later, Du Bois' dream is about to become a reality, both in print and on CD-ROM.

In February, Microsoft and a team of African-American studies scholars working under Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah will release Microsoft Encarta Africana, a CD-ROM of the history, geography and culture of Africa and people of African descent. Later in the year, a print version will be published by Perseus Books.

"There's never been anything like this before, a comprehensive encyclopedia of the entire black world," said Gates.

While other researchers have chronicled different aspects of African and African-American history, there has never been a catalog of this scope, Appiah said.

The two professors have tried for years to get financial backing for the encyclopedia. They began to move ahead on the project three years ago.

The encyclopedia contains 3,000 articles, solicited from over 400 scholars. The multimedia version allows users to experience parts of black history for themselves.

For example, users can take a virtual tour of the notorious Goree Island in Senegal, a midway point for slaves bound for the Americas, complete with 360-degree views and video and audio clips.

There is a reference to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's African great-grandfather and a lengthy piece that traces blacks in Great Britain back 2,000 years to when Africans first arrived with Julius Caesar's conquering army.

The collection traces the presence of blacks over a 4 million-year span, from the earliest hominids in Africa to poet Maya Angelou and actress Whoopi Goldberg in present day.

It is Microsoft's first spin-off from its popular Encarta line, a general reference encyclopedia on CD-ROM.