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Lukewarm Britannica;Subject of the week;Reference books

ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA. Multimedia Edition. pound;125 (including delivery in the UK). Tel: 0800 282 433

Can the world's most respected encyclopedia drag itself into the multimedia age? Hugh John spins the CD-Roms

With a 44 million word database, Encyclopedia Britannica has the largest body of text of all the encyclopedias. With more than 72,000 articles, it can claim to have twice as many as any other encyclopedia on CD-Rom. And, yes, the Britannica name and reputation is unrivalled in the encyclopedia world.

But when, earlier this decade, those arrivistes World Book, Grolier and Encarta brought their multimedia disks to market, Britannica, with the stubbornness of a feisty old relative, distanced itself from the new technology.

EB might have been released on CD-Rom but it was not, repeat, not, a multimedia encyclopedia. Think of it rather, we were told, as the complete print set on CD-Rom.

While other multimedia publishers were developing sophisticated search and retrieval tools and extending the potential of video and animation, Britannica contented itself with line drawings and diagrams. After all, it still held the trump card: a superb corpus of knowledge.

Now, finally, Britannica has gone multimedia, though it emphasises how careful it has been "only to introduce multimedia features where such technology genuinely helps to explain a concept or illustrate a context".

The truth is that to cross the digital divide between textual and multimedia information in one transforming leap is well nigh impossible.

In terms of multimedia content, Britannica still lags some way behind its main rivals. Features that have, in the past few years, become accepted as standard search devices on electronic disks - such as the ability to call up a dictionary definition of any word by highlighting and clicking - are missing.

Text, images and sound are spliced together giving the impression of a print version with pictures rather than an integrated multimedia package.

Information can be retrieved in two ways. A natural language search engine permits the user to ask questions as in normal speech or conversation. This is a somewhat hit-and-miss affair and not altogether satisfactory. Better simply to enter a word or phrase in the query box.

The second method is to browse the A-Z index using the search controls, which allows the user to specify a collection of filters, including category of knowledge, biography, location and media type. Those with Internet access can avail themselves of online updates and, for a trial period, Britannica Online.

Unfortunately, what also sets the leading multimedia encyclopedias apart is "localisation" - the refocusing of information for a particular geographical area or market, in this case the United Kingdom. EB, with its North American bias, sometimes lacks relevance or, worse, accuracy for UK users.

For instance, in an article on football, we are informed that "many players have discarded shin guards". Try telling that to the Football Association. For the past three years shin guards have been compulsoryin all competitive matches, from school football upwards.

Politics students will be surprised to learn that in a generally excellent article on Sinn Fein there is not one mention of its president, Gerry Adams, even though a biography is included elsewhere on the disk.

Small points, admittedly, but indicative of the sort of mistakes and omissions that can create a negative impression.

Such a judgment would be a pity, as EB remains a significant repository of well-written and stimulating articles, notably those found in the Britannica Classics section. It contains contributions from, among others, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and T E Lawrence.

Britannica is appreciably more expensive than other electronic reference books, but for many teachers and parents it is still the definitive encyclopedic source of information and is certainly worth a place in any school library.

When it is good it is very, very good, but to compete in the multimedia stakes requires a serious editorial commitment to new technology and multimedia.

System Requirements: IBM PCcompatible. Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0. 486 processor (Pentiumrecommended) with 16MB ofmemory and 45MB of space free on the hard drive. 4x CD-Rom drive recommended. Internet access required for online updates and trial subscription to Britannica Online.

Information about the other CD-Rom encyclopedias mentioned will be updated in the next TES 'Online'magazine on May 15

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