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WHITAKER'S ALMANACK 2000. The Stationery Office pound;40 1292pp, 1.4kg. THE HUTCHINSON ALMANAC 2000. Helicon pound;30 1014pp, 2kg. THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DESK REFERENCE. National Geographic pound;25 700pp, 1.65kg. WORLD DESK REFERENCE. Dorling Kindersley pound;25. 736pp, 1.9kg. Sherlock Holmes, who relied on Whitaker's Almanack, noted that while its earlier vocabulary was reserved, "it becomes quite garrulous towards the end". And so we expect that large reference books provide more than names and figures.

Do these four new-millennial one-volume aids to omniscience inform and elucidate? The intelligent and curious teenager or teacher expects scope and comprehensiveness, accessibility and clarity of presentation, and some easily grasped principle of order.

Of these books, both Whitaker's and Hutchinson have a specifically British focus, although they do cover the rest of the continents. National Geographic and Dorling Kindersley take the world for their province with a strangely parochial effect - they ignore vast areas of interest to concentrate on the great globe, its countries and provinces.

As an objective test, I consulted all four about recent political developments in Guyana and life in Sarawak.

Following some 400 lively pages of physical and human world geopgraphy, NG provides a 200-page gazetteer of countries. This gave me a full page on Guyanese transport, economics, governmental system and climate, but not the answer I needed. DK had a superb multi-coloured double-page spread, a good map, several graphs on the country's economic strengths and weaknesses, as well a potted history of national politics since the 1992 election, including Janet Jagan's resignation late in 1999.

Hutchinson offered a small black-and white map together with a half-page of facts, including a paragraph on recent political conflict. It had Janet Jagan's presidency but not its ending - neither did Whitaker's, though its column on history and politics incorporated many recent developments and a list of the cabinet as of July 1999. Its economic statistics, though not as detailed as DK's, were brisk and useful.

None of the four indexes told me that Sarawk was a territory within Malaysia - I had to know that in order to look it up under "M". As with Guyana, DK supplied the most accessible data, the most recent pictures and political controversies and the best map, while Whitaker's had the most extensive figures and some explanations on how Sarawak differs linguistically and administratively from the mainland.

Moving on to UK concerns, I knew that only Hutchinson and Whitaker's were going to be of use on the 1999 Cricket World Cup, the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, museums in Sheffield and my tax form. Both gave all the cricket results, group tables and summarised scores in the final rounds, but Hutchinson also provided detailed averages and a thoughtful summary of the entire competition, together with brief accounts of the most exciting matches and the background to the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

The only Lawrence near-namesake in the Whitaker's index is the one with a "u" who is married to the Princess Royal. However, there is a chronology of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and a clear summary of its findings. Hutchinson has an academic and critical treatment of the racial issues raised by the inquiry, together with a photograph of Doreen and Neville Lawrence. It says a little about the Police Complaints Authority, while Whitaker's goes one better and gives addresses, phone and fax numbers and a list of the PCA's members.

At this point, Whitaker's moved into the lead. It dedicated two paragraphs to Sheffield, as well as opening times, addresses and contact numbers for three galleries and an industrial museum. It explained the intricacies of the Inland Revenue. Hutchinson has a very good consumer information section, with statistics and many of the rules, but Whitaker's has a somewhat wider range and more fine detail. And it is less strain on the forearms.

If I were only able to buy one of these, it would be the traditional choice: Whitaker's. Hutchinson is very good and getting better, and Dorling Kindersley would make a nice supplement to Whitaker's with its tremendously impressive coverage of world information.

Tom Deveson

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