The information explosion happens here not with a new breakthrough but another bell and whistle.
I'm talking about those computerized encyclopedias.
Long packed with text, sound, and pictures, the latest crop has expanded onto two or even three CD-ROM disks. More sound and video. More special features. And, surprisingly, more uniformity.
As CD-ROM encyclopedias mature, they're getting to look more alike. All four programs reviewed here sport various search mechanisms and links to thousands of Internet sites. Even stodgy Encyclopedia Britannica has seen the writing on the multimedia wall, revamped its interface, and become more visually oriented.
The result is that whichever encyclopedia you pick of the four, your family will get a reference work that's better than the multi-volume booksets of old. They contain more information and present it in ways more interesting to late 20th-century youths.
Still, each program has its strengths and weaknesses. On balance, the 1998 deluxe edition of Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia deserves top honors, followed by Microsoft's Encarta 98.
They have the edge over traditional powerhouses World Book and Britannica not because of pretty pictures but because of the most important feature of an encyclopedia: the text.
Take the subject of cloning, for example. One of the biggest events of 1997 was the birth of the cloned sheep Dolly in Britain. Compton's coupled a helpful video with detailed explanations of the scientific breakthrough. Encarta included an interview with several scientists as a special sidebar to the main article. Sidebars are a useful addition to Encarta 98.
On the other hand, the usually reliable World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia 98 barely mentioned the experiment at all. And the search process to get to the article offered murky results. Britannica CD98 had a much better article on the subject but used language that was too sophisticated for most children.
The search engine is a key component of multimedia encyclopedias. As in previous years, Compton's engine gave the most consistent results in searches. When I mistyped Michael Jordan's last name, the software showed me the correct spelling and quickly led me to an article and photos of the basketball great.
World Book deserves an honorable mention. Its search engine displayed the correct spelling as one of several alternatives. The other two reference works simply reported that my search had produced no matches.
I expected the multidisk encyclopedias to involve lots of disk changes. But the publishers included most or all of their text on all the disks so you could find a new article no matter which disk was inserted. The third disk on Encarta is a separate program, the "Research Organizer," which enables students to organize their work on the computer in the equivalent of an outline and notecards.
Perhaps the most intriguing experiments in computerized reference, however, are coming from non-encyclopedic works. One of the most ambitious is World Book's "Interfact" series. Unlike most CD-ROM education titles, which replace books, these $15 programs come with a disk and a book.
"It's difficult to get kids to sit down and read a whole chapter," says Joe Vrankin, World Book's executive director of marketing. And typically they retain only a quarter of what they read. But when combined with multimedia, retention rises significantly, he says. World Book has sold 100,000 sets since last October on everything from Aztecs to the solar system. It plans to introduce several more titles this year.
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