Creating a multimedia encyclopedia is the easy part. What's increasingly apparent is that maintaining such a huge resource - updating content, websites, curriculum links - is a challenge that only the most committed and financially secure publishers can hope to meet.
Which is why, one suspects, Encarta is out there on its own both in terms of popularity and quality and as a genuine educational resource. Its 400 new articles and sidebars, 1,500 new web links and 2,500 revised and updated articles sound impressive, but - strange to say - they don't really do justice to the way Encarta improves year on year. This year, for instance, the AS level has been introduced to the curriculum guide and there is a new form of media; essentially a melange of different forms of media that is used to describe a sequence of events (see The History of Jazz).
Latha Menon, chief editorial consultant for the 2003 edition, is particularly pleased with Project Starters, intended to provide guidance on preparing different types of reports and essays, and the extended entries on RNA, DNA, protein and enzyme. David Skinner, head of the UK editorial team, says: "We've always tried to make our articles accessible without compromising their accuracy and depth."
Encyclopedia Britannica has taken the bold step of dividing itself into three. And unlike Encarta, it's a trinity published for both Windows and Apple users. Claiming to provide "a complete reference source for every age", EB now contains three discrete libraries: Encyclopedia Britannica for secondary school, university and adults; Student Encyclopedia for age 11+; and the Elementary Encyclopedia for age 7-12.
EB's strongest feature has always been its huge text base and that remains impressive, with some 91,000 articles and more than 2,100 photos. Research Organiser and Knowledge Navigator tools help students to search the encyclopedia and collate information. However, multimedia content could still be improved.
World Book continues to set standards for clarity of expression and article structure - it's easy to see why it's the encyclopedia of choice for many teachers. Here's how the article on Osama Bin Laden starts: "A Saudi-born millionaire and radical Muslim leader suspected of international terrorism. He strongly opposes United States policies in the Middle East, particularly US support for Israel and the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia."
Simple, informative, easy to assimilate. And yetI There's a fading majesty about World Book. Many of the innovations it pioneered - localisation, extended video essays, interactive multimedia, tool bars - have been taken up by other encyclopedias. But while Encarta and Britannica offer their users the choice of CD or DVD, World Book has stuck with the CD format. More important, while the online edition is "International English" the CD-Rom is localised no longer.
No Hutchinson 2003 yet. The word is that publishers Helicon will release the current version in spring. However, it's worth noting that Focus publishes the 2002 edition at a heavily discounted price. It also offers the Hutchinson reference series - History, Science and Music - at the same low prices.
The previous encyclopedias come with links to their home sites and 12 months free online membership which includes monthly updates. But if you want carefully tailored, high-quality educational content there are other options. RM's Living Library is a subscription service that brings together a complete package of appropriate multimedia resources for primary and secondary needs. In a similar vein, Oxford Reference Online gives online access to over 100 dictionaries and reference volumes.
The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia has been updated this year - the first revision since 2000. With more than 2,100 articles and 600 biographies including children's favourite JK Rowling, OCE is an excellent choice for younger students and new features on political leaders such as Blair, Bush and Putin give it added topicality.
BETT attendees will be able to compare reference CDs for the infant classroom. On Sherston's stand, the Oxford Talking Infant Atlas has interactive screens, text highlighting and click-activated text narration. And debuting at the show is Talking Topics - a series of six talking infant reference books on CD-Romfeaturing colourful graphics and animations.
Neptune Computer Technology will be launching Learner's Library at Olympia. The first three titles, Minibeasts, Musical Instruments and Transport, are intended to provide an easy-to-use reference CD for young learners at foundation level and key stage 1.
And now, readers, the hare and the tortoise reprised. Two years ago Microsoft produced an excellent multimedia dictionary that included sound files. Some reviewers (this one included) used the new Encarta dictionary to berate Oxford University Press for not adopting similar technology. Well, guess what? OUP has released the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on CD-Rom, with a rigorously overhauled word base and standard pronunciations for over 100,000 words. It's superb and sits neatly between the authoritative OED and the ever popular Concise Oxford. If you're after a dictionary on CD-Rom and are at BETT, visit the OUP stand.
Encyclopedia Britannica. Stand G38.
World Book (Learning Pathways) Stand G51
Encarta (Microsoft)Stand D30D34
Neptune Computer Technology Stand SW111
Oxford University Press Stand PZ51
RM Stand D50E50
Sherston Software Stand E60
Britannica Deluxe pound;60
World Book Online Edition pound;270, typically for larger school licence
Encarta Premium Suite pound;70
Encarta Plus pound;50
Encarta Standard pound;30
Learner's Library pound;20
Living Library pound;300, typically for larger school licence
Oxford English Dictionary pound;250
Shorter English Dictionary pound;80
Concise Oxford pound;18
Oxford Reference Online pound;175
Oxford Talking Infant Atlas pound;25
Talking Topics pound;35
Encyclopedia Britannica www.britannica.co.uk
Learning Pathways www.learnpath.com