A Comparative Survey of Multimedia CD-ROM Encyclopedias

Article excerpt

Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either -- Marshall McLuhan

Expanding the Encyclopedia's Informational Reach

Encyclopedias have gone through a remarkable metamorphosis--the little round silver ones we have now are definitely entertaining as well as presumably enlightening. Is that a bad thing? It's hard to imagine, but we've had encyclopedias on CD-ROM for 10 years now and multimedia ones for about half a dozen years. In fact, we've had encyclopedias on CD-ROM for as long as there have been CD-ROMs and multimedia ones as long as we've had multimedia CD-ROMs. That's because it makes so much sense.

These electronic encyclopedias definitely went through their growing pains, and although the past couple of years have seen improvements of at least an order of magnitude, the creators of these new reference works are still learning. We would argue that many of these new encyclopedias are quite obviously superior to their printed counterparts in many aspects. How could they not be? The text and images are the same to begin with, but that's essentially all the print version can offer. The basic difference is added value, content, and usability as well as a greatly reduced price. And please don't bring out that old red herring about 28 library patrons simultaneously using all 28 volumes of a printed set--we've never believed that fable for a minute. Some librarians are still leery of the new materials, but they should really acknowledge the general passing of printed reference works, should avoid bringing nostalgia or a leather fetish into collection development decisions, and should be appropriately indulgent of the remaining little problems with the new materials. The new electronic format was inevitable, is generally better (or simply different in a good way), and it's still in its early days.

Kister Rules OK

Appealing to the argument from authority, we refer to Ken Kister, surely the acknowledged guru of encyclopedia research over the past quarter century, writing in the last-ever issue of Wilson Library Bulletin (coincidentally then already on its way to some kind of reincarnation on the WWW, an additional sign of the times). If he thinks multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedias are OK, that should be good enough for the rest of us--it sure would have carried substantial weight in an assignment you might have written in library school:

Those who pooh-pooh multimedia

encyclopedias should

understand that these products are

in their infancy .... At data compression

technology improves,

audio and video components in

these encyclopedias will become

more numerous, more substantial,

more sophisticated--and more

effective from a reference standpoint.

I anticipate that in a short

time multimedia will be viewed

as an essential ingredient in the

encyclopedia mix, expanding the

encyclopedia's informational

reach just as color illustration did

earlier this century. (Kister 1995)

Enough said. …