'Encyclopaedia Britannica' is the latest information source to be published as a multimedia disc. Hugh John examines how 44 million words can be searched in a matter of seconds and asks whether the publisher has learnt the lessons of CD-Rom's pioneers
First published in Edinburgh in 1768, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has a longevity and pedigree that must be the envy of many encyclopaedic Johnny-come-latelies such as Grolier and Encarta.
Unfortunately, in the early Nineties, while Britannica was cautiously testing the water of electronic publishing, its brasher, more adventurous rivals had already done several lengths of the pool.
Encyclopaedia Britannica CD 2.0, which supports both PC and Macintosh platforms, supersedes the text-only version 1.0, which was released in 1994. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, the publisher, insists that its CD-Rom is not a multimedia offering and that it is not in direct competition with other CD-Roms, most notably, World Book, Encarta and Grolier. EB Inc suggests that to keep its textual integrity (44 million words, more than 2,500 illustrations, maps, charts and drawings, 230,000 index entries, 700,000 hypertext links), it was not possible to include any multimedia - animation, video clips or sound samples - on the CD.
In fact, even though the compilers of this electronic edition have included all the articles in the traditional 32-volume bound set, they have only been able to incorporate one tenth of the illustrations.
What Encyclopaedia Britannica does offer is an unequalled depth and scope of information and a fast and comprehensive cross-indexing and collating system. The "home page" (the World Wide Web browser Netscape Navigator is used as a search engine for the disc) has a blank box where you are invited to type your question in either colloquial or Boolean form - of which more later - and four main headings; Nations of the World, Propaedia, Picture Tour and Random Tour.
Propaedia is an outline of 10 themes within Britannica, including art, religion and technology, which allows users to hone and define their particular interests. Picture Tour takes the viewer through a selection of illustrations but, astonishingly, the current version does not contain a separate picture index, although one is planned for future editions.
Teachers should find the Nations of the World section highly stimulating. Nations are delineated in terms of culture, geography, economy, religion and politics.
There are detailed maps and the demographic information is of an order that only this encyclopaedia could supply. Percentage of households possessing a car? Favourite leisure activities? Gross national product? Percentage of voters participating in the last general election? It's all here.
The Netscape web browser can conduct colloquial or Boolean searches. A colloquial search would be one where the question was entered in natural language, as in, for example, "Why is the sky blue?" Results, however, are at best variable; at worst comic. The question, "Where is the world's highest mountain?" did not, in the first 10 answers, yield the correct answer, Mount Everest.
The query, "Who was the third man on the moon?" elicited, among others, the response, "Sir Carol Reed", who, as film buffs will know, directed The Third Man. Hardly the sign of a great artificial intelligence at work.
The claim made by Encyclopaedia Britannica that, using ordinary language, "the customer receives a list of articles ranked according to their relevance to the query, with the articles most likely to contain the answer appearing at the head of the list" is highly debatable.
Far better to use the Boolean system. This method of retrieval, which is more powerful and rewarding than the colloquial search, is used by other products such as The Oxford English Dictionary and Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopaedia.
It allows users to tailor their search by the insertion of linguistic qualifiers which is to say that the user can make more specific searches by linking key words with "and", "or", "not", "adj", so that the operator can widen or narrow the scope of their query.
Information is normally accessed by searching the encyclopaedia's database but it is also possible to look up meanings of words on the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, and, for an overview of a subject, to use the Britannica Index.
The sheer compass of Britannica's knowledge is only fully realised in an index search. Under "Cezanne", for example, alongside a substantial biography and critical assessment, there are related articles on Paul Klee, Modigliani, Gauguin and Picasso.
Those familiar with Netscape Navigator on the World Wide Web will feel comfortable on the Britannica home page. The screen layout is almost identical.
On-line with Navigator, users can sign up for a host of information services which include the Electronic Telegraph, Views of the Solar System, government information services and, of course, Britannica Online, through which it is possible to reach a large number of educational sites.
Cost has to be a big consideration for buyers in the educational field. Even with a 10 per cent discount the Encyclopaedia Britannica is almost seven times more expensive than the superb World Book CD-Rom which is an exemplar of multimedia publishing. And while World Book does not have the sheer authority and weight of the Britannica, its carefully structured articles might prove more amenable to younger students.
Then there's the dongle. This is a small security device which is inserted into the back of the computer and without which Encyclopaedia Britannica cannot run.
The practical consequence of such a device is that the disc cannot easily be moved from one classroom to another and would need to be kept in one room, perhaps a library, as a central resource.
Would-be multi-users of Britannica in larger academic institutions might consider buying the network version which will allow as many as 10 machines to be hooked up to the same CD-Rom.
It may be that recent developments in CD technology will force the hand of Britannica by providing the encyclopaedia with the capability to contain much more than the textual content.
Sony, Philips and Toshiba have finally reached an accord on the next compact disc standard. Presently, CDs have a storage capacity of 650 megabytes. The new discs will be able to hold a minimum of 4.7 gigabytes of data.
That is roughly a sevenfold increase on present limits and would mean that Encyclopaedia Britannica could maintain its textual integrity and have room for video and audio clips and whatever other multimedia presentations it chose to incorporate.
Now that would make a seriously big splash in the multimedia pool.