THE WORLD ON A CD-ROM?Digital encyclopedias have improved, but their makers still have a lot to learn
The only encyclopedia I have ever owned is a 101-year-old 9th Edition Britannica. So it's no great surprise that I haven't been a big fan of CD-ROM encyclopedias, which have seemed all multimedia sizzle and very little steak. But a look at the latest ones showed me that they have matured into useful references.
The electronic-encyclopedia market is dominated by the one product that has no print ancestor, Microsoft Encarta. The basic version of Encarta comes bundled on many new computers, but I looked at the enhanced two-CD Deluxe edition. (A digital videodisk version, combining both CDs and an assortment of other references on a single disk, is available for $120.) World Book ruled the market for youth encyclopedias for decades, but it sat on the sidelines while electronic products devoured its market. IBM acquired the potent brand name last year and is tackling Microsoft head-on. Meanwhile, Encyclopaedia Britannica, another proud name that was nearly done in by the electronic onslaught (BW--Oct. 20), has launched its first mass-market CD version.
Encarta is still the flashiest encyclopedia around, with graphics on just about every page and lots of videos. But while its content has improved since its early days, Encarta still seems a bit light on hard information. For example, a search for ''Thirty Years War'' turns up a 2,000-word article that offers a superficial summary of the conflict.
One of the great strengths of electronic encyclopedias is their ability to use hyperlinks that allow the reader to jump to a related subject with the click of a mouse. Yet Encarta disappoints on that score. The ''Thirty Years War'' article contains only two such links, and they are odd ones. The main article fails to tell you much about the causes or consequences of the war, but if you click on ''Peace of Westphalia,'' you learn, among other obscure facts, that ''Mecklenburg-Schwerin was enlarged by the bishoprics of Schwerin and Ratzeburg in compensation for Wismar.''
Encarta Deluxe comes with a nice bonus--a program called Research Organizer. It allows a student to type or cut-and-paste information--including pictures and graphics--onto the electronic equivalent of index cards. Research Organizer allows the cards to be organized into an outline for writing a paper, and it automatically builds a bibliography.
World Book is nowhere near as pretty as Encarta, but it's often more informative. Searching its index for ''Thirty Years War'' turns up an article that's about the same length and depth as Encarta's but that also provides references to articles on such related topics as the counterreformation as well as biographies of key figures in the war.
Both World Book and Encarta boast of World Wide Web links, but I found that, in general, I could do about as well searching the Web on my own. The main use for the built-in links is to connect to the Microsoft or IBM sites, which provide information updated since the encyclopedias were published.
POWERFUL ENGINE. Britannica 98, which should be on store shelves in mid-November, is a different beast. While its publisher suggests that it could be used by junior high school students, the encyclopedia's content and language are too difficult for most students below high school. Indeed, some articles, such as the entries on mathematics, seem aimed at college level or above.
The Britannica is built for browsing. My ''Thirty Years War'' search there produced an article not much longer than Encarta's. But that brief survey contained 26 links to related topics that would leave you with a solid lesson in 17th century European history. And it includes a powerful full-text search engine, so a query on ''Cardinal Richelieu'' turns up not only a biography of the French statesman but also an article on Vincent Price, who played the cardinal in a movie, and much more. It also gives intelligent answers to queries such as: ''What treaty ended the War of the Austrian Succession?''
Britannica was my favorite, and I recommend it to curious adults who want to do some intelligent browsing. But its contents are just too much for school-age kids. For them, I would recommend World Book or Encarta, with the edge going to World Book for its more comprehensive text.
BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM
Updated Oct. 30, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.