Silent Partners on the Web

By Jacso, Peter | Information Today, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Silent Partners on the Web


Jacso, Peter, Information Today


The identities of many online reference resources are often unacknowledged

Silence is not exactly the word one would associate with Web partnerships, but I bet you didn't hear much about Versaware's Web presence, or even Houghton Mifflin's, until Versaware's e-book project was mentioned in Information Today (December 1999, page 41). Still, these two companies have been licensing the digital versions of two widely known ready-reference sources--the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia and the American Heritage Dictionary--for various Web publishers. To a lesser extent, Random House did the same with two of its dictionaries.

From my own informal surveys I know that hardly anyone is aware that these resources are available on the Web. Very few of the Web directories and subject guides list the free American Heritage Dictionary or the free Random House dictionaries. Those that do list the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia refer to the original Web version published by Versaware (http://www.funkandwagnalls.com), but not the versions that have the advantage of not requiring a user ID and password. The many free Web versions of the American Heritage Dictionary fared even worse, as only OneLook--the excellent metasearch engine for dictionaries--identifies it in the list of dictionaries that it does not search.

This will change with the March release of the Bartleby Web project (http://www.bartleby.com). This site prominently includes and identifies--among other gems--the American Heritage Dictionary. The free implementations of the Random House dictionaries, however, are totally absent from the Web subject guides and directories.

As for the zillion "my favorite Web sites" collections, they don't seem to be aware of these excellent freebies, either. They list dictionary sites but don't identify the brand or publisher--information that's important when judging which dictionary to use. They're often treated as if they were cheap resources that must be kept hidden.

Ironically, these favorite collections almost never fail to include encyclopedias--and to a lesser extent dictionaries--which would make Diderot and Webster roll in their graves on learning what products are associated with these two words. Just take a look at the Free Internet Encyclopedia (http://clever.net/cam/encyclopedia.html). It's an ugly mishmash of links for terms that seem to have been selected with no rhyme or reason. Still, the encyclopedia appears in many directories and subject guides, including one created by librarians who really should know better.

Another example is the Encyclopedia of Women's History (http://www.teleport.com/[sim]megaines/women.html), a K-12 site that is not only one of the most inappropriately named Web sites but also one of the most ill-conceived projects that I've seen on the Web. It's a collection of biographical excerpts that K-12 students simply copied from other encyclopedias, complete with their spelling errors. This isn't like a collection of children's stories, drawings, or other creative works. And it's certainly not an encyclopedia that should be listed among top reference sources. Check out the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt for an example of what I mean. Still, many Web guides and directories refer to it, and even give it awards (Top 5%, Magellan 4 stars, etc.), obviously based on its name.

Houghton Mifflin

Houghton Mifflin is the publisher of many textbooks and dictionaries, including the flagship print edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). The company offers many of its products in SGML and HTML format, but its home page (http://www.hmco.com) doesn't reveal the AHD's licensees, and the catalog mentions only the print and CD-ROM versions--not the many free online ones.

Many publishers have licensed the digital format of AHD for CD-ROM. One of the most widely known is SoftKey International's CD-ROM version, which appears in several different editions with and without illustrations and with and without audio pronunciations. …

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