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Multimedia libraries

Finding the best CD-Rom encyclopedia for your needs can be an intimidating experience. Some of the best are disadvantaged by not having high-powered advertising, slick promotion or "bundling" with software and hardware as a means of getting into school libraries by the back door.

Teachers have long been wary of publishers' claims that it is their product, above all others, which meets the requirements of the national curriculum, although some, such as World Book and Encarta, are making genuine efforts to provide a package for specific project work.

Traditionally, the person most likely to give an informed opinion on the best encyclopedia for your needs has been the librarian, teacher - or even bookseller. With CD-Roms this no longer holds true, partly because it is more difficult to assess the textual content of a disc.

Kister's Best Encyclopedias (The Oryx Press) is strongly recommended for any serious survey of encyclopedias. Although published in the US in 1994, much of the information still holds good.

In this country, the National Council for Educational Technology (World Wide Web server address: httpncet.csv.warwick. ac.ukindex.html) offers an invaluable service to anyone wishing to use electronic products as educational aids.

Among its publications is an annual CD-Rom Titles Review (Pounds 15.95) for primary schools, and Finding OUT! (Pounds 9.95), a package designed specifically with the use of encyclopedias as reference tools in mind.

Some of the encyclopedias listed in the comparative table below stand head and shoulders above the rest. The most welcome addition to the list is the American general-purpose Colliers CD-Rom Encyclopedia. At Pounds 233.82, it is half the length and one-third of the price of its principal competitor, the Britannica 2.0 on CD-Rom.

Among the shorter encyclopedias, teachers have long held the US-based World Book Encyclopedia in high esteem. Its graded-language entries make it accessible to older primary pupils, and questions at the end of main articles encourage students to look at the text more closely to identify key issues.

Its multimedia element, while smaller, is superior to that of its nearest rivals, Grolier and the World English edition of Encarta. Like Colliers and Britannica, it suffers a degree of multimedia austerity: why, for example, restrict examples of musical forms to composers from the baroque and romantic era, ignoring our own century's contribution and the magnificent heritage of sacred and secular music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?

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