CD-Based Reference Tools Serve As "Virtual Libraries"


What is photosynthesis? How many people live in Mexico City? Who built the Taj Mahal, and why? Not many students can answer these questions without consulting an encyclopedia, atlas or other reference work. Fortunately, they no longer have to visit the local library and hunt through endless aisles to find the books, maps, etc. they need. Not to mention the inevitable trips to the copy machine, which seems to always break down right before an important deadline. These days, thanks to a variety of computer-based reference tools, an abundance of information lies at one's fingertips. Such products have been around for over a decade. Grolier introduced its first Multimedia Encyclopedia in January 1986. However, widespread adoption did not occur until fairly recently, due to the proliferation of low-cost, speedy CD-ROM drives and CD network towers plus other enhancements to desktop PCs. Price reductions have also fueled the demand for electronic reference tools; entire encyclopedias can be had for as little as $45, with academic discounts bringing costs down even further. This article surveys some of the latest releases in this field, highlighting major trends of interest to education.

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Encyclopedias Come of Age

Multimedia encyclopedias have come a long way since their introduction, when publishers simply "dumped" existing information from printed sources, adding a few bells and whistles such as sound effects and limited search functions. In contrast, today's titles are packed with vivid animation, video, audio and games plus advanced search engines. Indeed, CD-ROMs are a natural medium for encyclopedias. (It's also much easier to carry around a disc versus 25+ printed volumes.)

Britannica CD contains the full text of the 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica, one of the most authoritative general encyclopedias in the English language. One can search on any subject, obtaining broad overviews or moving ahead to advanced levels of detail and understanding. Boolean searches are also supported. Illustrations, figures and photographs provide visual reinforcement to Britannica CD's text. For example, a question about Art Nouveau architecture brings forth a text explanation and leads to a photograph of Casa Mila by architect Antonio Gaudi. Bibliographies at the end of articles give still more research suggestions. Britannica CD comes in both stand-alone and networked formats; pricing for the latter is based on FTE enrollment.

Another leading producer of printed encyclopedias, World Book recently entered the electronic age with its World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia, which boasts easy-to-read text. Owners of the printed version can get the CD-ROM for a discounted price. Looking ahead, Compton's NewMedia unveils Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1997 for Windows, which features 40,000+ articles as well as numerous videos, animations, slideshows and maps. Representing the latest trend, users can download updates to the encyclopedia from online sources, including America Online (AOL), or hot link directly to sites on the World Wide Web. AOL comes bundled on the CD-ROM, providing one-button access to the Compton's NewMedia Forum, which offers homework assistance and activities for students.

Shipping this August, the 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia also exploits the expansive resources on the Internet. The Grolier Internet Index connects thousands of articles on the CD-ROM to related Internet sites hand-picked by a team of editorial, education and library experts. Approximately 800 new sites will be added to the index each month. Grolier's latest release also offers four new interface screens for accessing the 50,000+ articles (7,000 are new or revised), 1,200 maps, 9,500 images or 600 musical selections. A separate timeline tracks pivotal episodes in history, utilizing videos and narration, while 16 Guided Tours provide a thematic approach to content.

A highlight of Microsoft's Encarta 96 Encyclopedia School Edition is a free teacher's guide, complete with suggested activities and reproducible student pages. In addition, the Yearbook Builder lets one download sets of articles each month from the Web; it takes roughly 10 minutes to update the CD's contents. The Encarta Schoolhouse on the Web, designed primarily for grades 6-12, extends learning via timely topics and hot links. Encarta has won more than 30 awards in North America alone, including a "Codie" from the Software Publishers Association. Microsoft plans to announce a new version of Encarta this fall with many enhancements; current users may inquire about rebates or annual subscriptions for future editions.

For those more interested in modern history, Vicarious' Our Times Multimedia Encyclopedia of the 20th Century surveys events of the last 96 years through captivating articles, essays, images and video documentaries. Narrated by actor James Earl Jones, the disc draws upon original commentary by writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Jay Gould. Entertaining Fast Facts summarize births, deaths, Nobel prize winners as well as political, business and cultural events for each year. Other encyclopedias are expressly tailored for youngsters or focus on a specific subject area.

The Jones Telecommunications and Multimedia Encyclopedia from Jones Digital Century reviews companies, technologies and people responsible for shaping the information and communications industries. The CD-ROM covers the telephone, computer, software, broadcast and cable industries, with weekly updates available on the Internet. It also has the full text of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act.

One of the latest in an ever-expanding series from DK Multimedia, the Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe presents more than 50 animations, 400 photographs and illustrations, and 80,000 words, including a history of astronomy, chronology of the "Space Race," and observations of planets and stars. Students also can learn about ancient telescopes and cutting-edge space technologies. Teachers and students of medical science, meanwhile, will appreciate IVI Publishing's Mayo Clinic Health Encyclopedia and A.D.A.M. Software's A.D.A.M.: The Inside Story. The latter title lets one examine the human body layer by layer; hand-crafted anatomical illustrations depict thousands of structures that work together to sustain life.

Exploring the World

If someone is more interested in Indochina than the endocrine system, an electronic atlas should do the trick. Like CD-based encyclopedias, today's atlases go beyond dry facts by adding dramatic audio, video and graphics, as well as robust search capabilities. Complementing the firm's history and geography videodiscs, Rand McNally's Children's World Atlas takes users to the Scottish Highlands, the Australian Outback, the Great Wall of China, or other distant places. Students learn by playing any one of six traditional games from around the world, either with classmates or against the computer. A school version comes with print atlases, desk and wall maps, and 96-page Teacher's Guide.

3D Atlas from Creative Wonders shows the world as it actually exists: full of elevations and depressions, and dynamic over time. Thousands of satellite images have been pieced together to form a cloudless mosaic of the entire planet. Navigate through 12 3D spinning globes and zoom in through nine levels of detail, from the top of Mt. Everest to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

With 3D Talking Globe: The See and Hear Atlas Gazetter, from Now What Software, one can search the world over for place names and hear more than 3,000 of those names pronounced by native speakers. An award-winning Maps that Move engine allows the richly textured globe to be spun from pole to pole and through all points of the compass.

In recent years, numerous studies have shown that many Americans are dangerously close to being geographically illiterate. Microsoft's Encarta 96 World Atlas seeks to combat that decline by embracing National Geography Standards, which emphasize the interactions between environment and society. The Encarta 96 World Atlas contains a comprehensive 3D world map, one million place names plus high-resolution satellite views of 52 cities. Dynamic rendering and labeling allow maps to be drawn and labeled on the fly from real data, instead of from stored, static views. Plus, Culturgrams provide an inside look at daily life in 118 countries, including customs, transportation and commerce.

Other noteworthy atlases are DK Multimedia's Cartopedia and Compton's Interactive World Atlas. Even youngsters can start learning geography basics with Trudy's Time and Place House (ages 4-6) from Edmark or Nigel's World: Adventures in World Geography (ages 7-12) from Lawrence Productions. In Nigel's World, students accompany a fearless Scotsman as he snaps photographs of people, animals and landmarks.

A Writer's Best Friends

When students find the desired information from an encyclopedia or atlas, their next task often is to create a coherent report or presentation. Electronic writing tools can remove much of the frustration by helping with grammar, spelling and word choice. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Electronic Edition on CD-ROM, contains over 214,000 definitions; 130,000 synonyms, antonyms, related and contrasted words and idiomatic expressions; and 1,000 illustrations. M-W Link provides instant access to the dictionary from all text-based applications. Also from Merriam-Webster, The Language Pack combines a collegiate dictionary with the Harbrace College Handbook, featuring chapters on grammar, mechanics, punctuation, spelling and diction, research and compositional form. It's worth mentioning that, in addition to spell checkers, many leading word processors have a built-in dictionary and thesaurus.

Students at a loss for words may also consult Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Expanded Multimedia Edition, from Time Warner Electronic Publishing. Based upon the 160-year-old book of the same name, the CD-ROM includes 22,000 text quotations, all indexed by keyword, topic, author, date, nationality, gender, profession and geography. Several publishers have combined encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference tools to form complete "desktop libraries."

The Mindscape Student Reference Library integrates a powerful retrieval engine with 10 major reference sources, including a concise encyclopedia, Reader's Companion to American History, 1996 Information Please Almanac, dictionary and thesaurus. Mindscape's Easy Export feature organizes findings into a convenient report format that imports into almost any word processor. Articles from all sources are cross-linked to photos, maps, video, audio and more on the Internet; a Web browser and subscription offer from SpryNet are included to help schools get started. Plus, the On Hand function copies reference materials to the hard drive, so they can be accessed when another CD-ROM is loaded.

Microsoft Bookshelf 1996-97 Edition, meanwhile, incorporates an Internet Directory with nearly 5,000 Web, gopher and FTP sites, mailing lists and newsgroups. Monthly updates to the directory are provided at no charge. The product integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and automatically adds a footnote to the bottom these documents.

More Facts and Figures

In the old days, students wishing to spice up reports with facts and figures from periodicals had to sift through back issues or, even worse, load and operate a microfiche viewer. With NewsBank's line of CD-ROMs, they need only type in a key word or phrase into their computer, choose relevant articles and print the results. One of NewsBank's latest releases, Popular Periodicals Standard contains the full text of all articles from 60 magazines on a single disc, updated monthly. Titles were selected by evaluating the top choices of librarians throughout the U.S. and include Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Forbes and Newsweek.

EBSCO Publishing recently increased the coverage of Primary Search, its periodical database created specifically for the elementary school library. Effective October 1996, the database will include full text for 31 titles, indexing and abstracting for 115 titles, and EBSCO's Encyclopedia of Animals. A Collection Control System tracks periodical usage by tabulating the number of times articles appear in search results.

Similarly, Creative Wonders' ABC NewsLinks: The Current Events Resource connects current events with relevant geographical, political and historical issues. Using WonderLink, one can download the day's top stories from ABC News' Web site, which appear on a 3D globe interface as map pins. Hot spots highlight regions of global conflict.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.