Today, the historical study of Africa and of the African diaspora provides some of the most exiting and innovative history available. Much of that scholarship derives, understandably, from North America (the region which, curiously, received the smallest proportion of African slaves shipped into the Americas). Whereas the history of slavery and the diaspora once seemed marginal and merely curious, it is now recognised to be central and pivotal in the shaping of the modern Atlantic world.
In the Encarta Africana CD-Rom, Atlantic slavery is the core and determining issue. The oceanic transportation of millions of Africans into the slave colonies of the Americas - to break open the land and tap the region's potential for the betterment of their masters and for Europeans - transformed the face of the Americas. It enhanced European well-being - and laid waste to swathes of Africa in ways we are only just beginning to comprehend. Until the early 19th century the Americas were more African than European - many more Africans had settled in the Americas than Europeans. The consequences of this massive enforced migration, for three continents, were enormous.
The difficulty for historians is to convey the sweep of the topic while capturing the specific detail. It is a story which spans post-Columbus to the present day. It is a measure of the achievement of this superb collection that it is able - by dint of nimble editorial guidance and tight scholarly and creative contribution, not merely to achieve all this - but to do so in an accessible and seductive fashion.
This is not simply the story of slavery, it ranges from the most distant areas of African history through to contemporary African, and African-American political and cultural attainments.
This is scholarly and creative software at its best, easily managed, imaginatively conceived and executed and intellectually exciting. It perhaps has a North American gloss, but that scarcely compromises the international scope and range of the overall offering. And it has the advantage over conventional printed encyclopedias of incorporating moving images and sound.
Inevitably, much of the data presented here will need periodic updating. But for the moment, Encarta Africana is at the forefront of imaginative scholarly and publishing enterprise. It deserves to be adopted as widely as possible - and not simply by people and institutions interested in Africa or the diaspora. At the core of this study lies another story; the relationship between the West and the peoples of Africa and the unacknowledged debts still owed to Africa.
Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates jnr, eds
Price: pound;49.99 for two-disc CD-Rom from Microsoft