What to look up next?

18th August 1995 at 01:00
THE OXFORD REFERENCE SHELF ON CD-ROM Pounds 79.99. For Windows and Macintosh. . Oxford University Press, Electronic Publishing, Walton Street, Oxford OX2 6DP. Tel: 01865 267979

In my day you had to walk to the shelf, lift down a seven pound volume, sniff the vellum, nothing quite like the smell of an old book, and then find the magnifying glass.

So things have moved on since those Halcyon days, but how do you use a disc like this, which contains 16 complete reference books?

For convenience they are put under four headings: Oxford Writer's Shelf; Oxford Business Shelf; Oxford Language Shelf; Oxford Science Shelf and the disc's most attractive feature is the way it links with a word processor. You can be writing and almost instantly check the meaning of the word: no walking to a shelf, no opening the book, just a few clicks of the mouse and there you are.

The writer's section contains the Pocket Oxford, a dictionary for writers and editors, a usage dictionary, a small dictionary of quotations and a small encyclopaedia. The business area contains four texts: dictionaries of business, law, abbreviations and a world gazetteer. There are mini-dictionaries for French, German Spanish and Italian. In science there is a concise dictionary, a dictionary of computing and one for scientific writers and editors.

To be really effective, though, the disc has to be resident in the CD drive while you are working. From there it is easy and fast to reach as you write. If you find a quotation that you want to use, it can be copied in to your writing straight from the disc. If, however, you have to go and find the disc, load it and then access it then you might feel that a book would be quicker.

So who is going to get the most out of it? What kind of polymath is going to leap from the Dictionary of Law over to the Dictionary of Computing passing on to the Spanish Minidictionary before ending up with the Dictionary of Business? Obviously fine for a library to add to its roster of resources. Some might value its range and not worry about its depth.

It is here that we get to the real problem with this disc. Most of the texts are cut-down versions. The encyclopedia is compact, the dictionary is pocket, the quotations are mini, the dictionary of business concise. If you are looking for a term would you go to one of these if you had a complete text available? The Dictionary of Computing though is particularly good as is the World Gazetteer.

One disappointment is the fact that it is difficult to search the whole disc. You seem to have to do it a book at a time. This is very frustrating and it is difficult to see why it should be so.

The crucial question is: in the time that I have had access to it how much have I used it? The honest answer is: not much. I am a frequent user of reference works but none of the ones here are substantial. If I want a quotation I won't go to a mini-dictionary, I would want something more substantial.

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