Minimalist aims for the maximum

27th June 1997 at 01:00
WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA 1997 International English Edition. CD-Rom for multimedia PC (Windows 95 or 3.1, minimum 8 megabytes of memory, 10 megabytes of hard disc space; Pounds 49.95. Learning Pathways Tel: 01332 297729.

It must have irked the publishers and editors of World Book that, while their multimedia encyclopedia gathered plaudits from educationists and reviewers, Microsoft's Encarta, with astute marketing, garnered the sales and publicity. Thanks to a new alliance with IBM, however, things could change.

This World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia is a serious contender. The double CD-Rom contains more than 8,000 pictures and illustrations, 134 videos, 44 animations and 17,500 articles - in fact the complete text of the print version. Much of the editorial content has been developed in London, where World Book has had offices since 1961.

The most obvious aspect of IBM's involvement is the interface, which has been overhauled and modernised. IBM designers have retained the subdued colours and minimalist visual style, which younger students in particular find so attractive and make navigation simple and intuitive. Menus and drop-down options have been arranged to make information easy to access and retrieve. Articles are clearly written, well structured and accompanied by a sidebar which provides a clear outline of the text.

Teachers and librarians will have reservations about the double-CD format, however. The need to change discs may have been kept to a minimum, but there will be more than a few silvery objects on the classroom floor, or, at worst, being used as indoor frisbees. Most of the videos, animations and virtual realities are on Disc 2 and as many as 12 can be stacked up for viewing without having to return to Disc 1.

The longer videos, some running for more than three minutes, demonstrate the educational strength of World Book. Two of them, the life of Mahatma Gandhi, narrated by the actor Saeed Jaffrey, and the history of apartheid in South Africa (with rare footage of a young Nelson Mandela, and film showing the everyday shame of segregation) are exceptional, managing to be both informative and emotionally engaging.

With more than a passing nod to the edu-tainment market, the 19 "virtual realities" include 360-degree views of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and Trafalgar Square. The Venus de Milo, skull anatomy and Stonehenge VRs are more specifically educational, but it is hard not to get the feeling of high-end technology in search of an appropriate application.

The animations, however, are uniformly stimulating and informative, covering a wide range of topics, from the now obligatory four-stroke petrol engine to the structure of DNA. Budding morticians, taxidermists and general-purpose ghouls will particularly enjoy the extremely realistic account of embalming in ancient Egypt.

Help features include electronic "sticky notes", which allow students to annotate articles for future bookmarking and cross-referencing, and a "highlighting" function that can be used to point up important information. Clicking any word in the text of the encyclopedia will activate the dictionary.

Ah, the dictionary, the comprehensive World Book dictionary in which more than 225,000 terms are defined. A quarter of a million definitions, but no room for what the Concise Oxford Dictionary fastidiously refers to as "coarse slang"? More seriously, many of the words circumscribed by the dictionary's editorial policy have a significant place in modern literature. Try Philip Larkin's famous observation, rewritten: "They muck you up, your Mum and Dad." Doesn't have quite the same ring does it?

World Book has comprehensive Internet links and comes with software for connecting to the IBM global network. It also works with Internet service providers such as America Online and Compuserve. More than 3,000 articles from the World Book archives, dating back to 1922, are now available from its Web site.

Other on-line features include an update facility, which, in a marvel of modern connectivity, not only downloads material, but seamlessly integrates it into the relevant article, and more than 1,200 Web sites which are linked to articles in theencyclopedia.

Editorial judgment is necessarily subjective (as indeed are reviewers' comments) but some of the executive decisions are, to put it mildly, puzzling. Eleven gymnastics videos, four swimming videos, but not one on cricket, tennis or, what World Book itself describes as, "the world's most popular game", football? In cycling there is no mention of Miguel Indurain's stunning five consecutive victories in the Tour de France. And jazz and rock lovers may wonder why there is not a single clip of their music but eight operatic extracts.

Overall, though, the producer, Daphne Richardson, has assembled a title which in terms of educational content, presentation and cutting-edge technology remains the benchmark for multimedia encyclopedias.

* World Book Web site:

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