Well-informed relative works wonders with buried jewels

Britannica CD 98 Multimedia Edition
January 9, 1998

Reference books were the first hypertexts. A landmark was the 1974 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica with its compact Micropaedia, in-depth Macropaedia, Index and Propaedia or "outline of knowledge", all copiously cross-referenced. This structure has weathered well, not only in print but on CD-Rom and now in a Windows 95-only multimedia edition of Britannica.

With all the text and images from the multi-volume printed encyclopedia transferred to CD, the quality and quantity of information here is indisputable. But it is also very well organised, with a choice of routes into the information to suit every kind of inquiry and every level of user from secondary school onwards. Of course, Britannica never was and never will be for those want their information in tiny predigested morsels. Nor does Britannica claim the last word on any subject: the tradition of providing references to the literature has now been extended to include links to Internet sites.

Exploring the 72,000 articles you have little chance of stumbling over the 45 which carry video or animation. So Britannica feels less media-rich than smaller CD encyclopaedias. No wonder the editors felt the need to showcase these buried treasures in a set of multimedia presentations on popular themes such as dinosaurs, ecosystems, and the American Civil War, which go far beyond the work's main function as a reference source.

The multimedia Britannica uses a customised Internet browser interface. A copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.02 is included on the installation disc. Installation over IE3.0 went without a hitch.

Links lead fluidly between articles, the superbly-structured Index, and a list of contributors which shows other articles by the same author. Besides the links embedded in the text, each article comes with a list of related articles, shown in a separate pane. Images, video and animation are marked by thumbnail images embedded in the text, but you cannot tell from the thumbnails which images will move.

The clips, mostly brief and shown in a playing-card sized window, have been chosen with almost agonising care for their historical or cultural importance: among them the Wright brothers' 1909 flight, Nelson Mandela's release, the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse (both spectacular and important in engineering history) and Billie Holiday belting out one verse before she is cut off in mid-song.

Animation, too, is used sparingly - mainly where it can really help to explain something like dinosaur gaits or the propagation of different kinds of earthquake wave. A powerful global search is always available, but it is a pity that one cannot search for a word or phrase within an article, timeline or other document. Timelines: yes, one of the oldest ideas in CD-Rom encyclopaedias, but Britannica's version is outstanding. Pick two areas of human activity such as architecture and music, and two parallel timelines reveal what was happening in those arts or sciences at any epoch from mythological beginnings to the present. There are timelines for religion and women's studies (with beer and silk the earliest listed female accomplishments) but sadly not for political, social or economic history. A set of world history timelines would be a fine enhancement to a future edition.

"Compass" is another route into Britannica's resources, based on geography rather than history. Click on a continent, select a country. But do not expect detailed maps. For that you need an atlas.

"Analyst" generates custom reports, tables and charts comparing statistics between any nations or regions you choose. But all statistics need to be used with intelligence and scepticism. Be prepared to dig for explanations when you see 100 per cent adult literacy reported for ten of the 15 European Union nations.

To home in rapidly on more abstract subjects there is "Spectrum", an excellent subject tree. Also constantly available is an alphabetic index of all 72,000 articles, made manageable by filters which let you slice, dice and zoom in on your subject.

I do not think I have ever seen so much information so well organised. Unfortunately, the CDs' integration with the Internet has not been done so well. Useful browser features are not available. You cannot opt to open a file in a new window. Bookmarks are stored separately from your main Favorites folder. Dictionary and Index pages, though HTML documents, are made to behave like dialogue boxes: you have to close them before you do anything else. You cannot yet treat Britannica, the Net and your own files as a single seamless resource.

Much content is duplicated on the twin discs of the multimedia edition, so disc-swapping is not frequently required. Some buyers may prefer to forego multimedia and wait for the 1998 standard edition, which will be a single disc able to run on Windows or Macintosh machines.

Britannica CD 98 Multimedia Edition

ISBN - www.eb.com
Publisher - Encyclopaedia Britannica
Price - £125.00 incl. VAT
Pages - 2 CDs + instller (PC)

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