With the demise of Microsoft’s Encarta (it has been discontinued) and the tribulations of the Wikipedia (its rules have been revamped to resemble a traditional encyclopedia, alienating its contributors in the process), the Encyclopedia Britannica 2010 (established in 1768) may have won the battle of reference.
The Encyclopedia Britannica 2010 Ultimate Edition (formerly “Student and Home Edition”) builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-9. The rate of innovation in the last four versions was impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds, Heroes and Villains, and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den). Six months of free access to the myriad riches of the Britannica Online complete the package.
The Britannica comes bundled with an atlas (close to 1800 maps linked to articles and 287 World Data Profiles of individual countries and territories); the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus, augmented by a Spanish-English translation dictionary; classic articles from previous editions; twelve yearbooks (11,200 articles in total); an Interactive Timeline with 4000+ indexed timeline entries; a Research Organizer; and a Knowledge Navigator (called The Brain or BrainStormer). All told, it offers a directory of more than 166,000 reviewed and vetted links to online content.
In its new form the Britannica is user-friendly, with an A to Z Quick Search feature, monthly updates and the aforementioned 6 months of free access to its impressive powerhouse online Web site (more than 1 million additional articles and other items!).
The Britannica’s newest interface is even more intuitive and uncluttered than previously and is great fun to use. It offers morsels of knowledge, some of it date-specific, appetizingly presented through a ticker tape of visuals that leisurely scrolls across the bottom of the screen plus highly edifying interactive tours of articles and attendant media.
When you enter even the first few letters of a term in the search box, it offers various options and is persistent: no need to click on the toolbar’s “search” button every time you want to find something in this vast storehouse of knowledge. Moreover, the user can save search results onto handy “Virtual Notecards”. Whole articles can be copied onto the seemingly inexhaustible Workspace.
The new Britannica’s display is tab-based, avoiding the erstwhile confusing proliferation of windows with every move. Most importantly, articles appear in full, not in sections. This major improvement facilitates the finding of relevant keywords in and the printing of entire texts. These are only a few of the numerous alterations and enhancements.
Perhaps the most refreshing change is the Britannica’s Update Center. Dozens of monthly updates and new, timely articles are made available online (subject to free registration). A special button alerts the user when an entry in the base product has been updated.
Regrettably, the updates cannot be downloaded to the user’s computer or otherwise incorporated into the vast encyclopedia. Moreover, the product does not alert its user to the existence of completely new articles, only to updated ones. It takes a manual scan of the monthly lists to reveal newly added content.
Speaking of updates, one must not forget to dwell on the Britannica’s unequalled yearbooks. Each annual volume contains the year in events, scientific developments, and everything you wanted to know about the latest in any and every conceivable field of human endeavor, or Nature. About 11,200 articles culled from the last 12 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia’s anyhow impressive offerings.
The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant traditional encyclopedia, print or digital (a total of 59 million words). But it has noticeably enhanced its non-textual content over the years (the 1994-7 editions had nothing or very little but words, words, and more words): it now boasts in excess of 30,000 images and illustrations (depending on the version) and 900 video and audio clips. This is not to mention the Britannica Classics: articles from Britannica’s most famous contributors: from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Harry Houdini and from Marie Curie to Orville Wright.
The Britannica fully supports serious research. It is a sober assemblage of first-rate essays, up to date bibliographies, and relevant multimedia. It constitutes a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.
The Britannica’s 84-107,000 articles (depending on the version) are long and thorough, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields. The company’s Editorial Board of Advisors reads like the who’s who of the global intellectual and scientific community.
The Britannica is an embarrassment of riches. Users often find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. This is why the Britannica incorporated the BrainStormer to cope with this predicament. But an informal poll I conducted online shows that few know how to deploy it effectively.
The Britannica also sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product, replete with a Homework Helpdesk, “how to” documents, and interactive games, activities, and math and science tutorials. Still, the Britannica is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. It provides unequalled coverage of its topics.
Ironically, this is precisely why the market positioning of the Britannica’s Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is problematic: compared to the Wikipedia, the Britannica’s brand is distinctly adult and scholarly. The vacuum left by the Encarta (lamented) discontinuance, though, should make it easier to market the Student and Elementary versions (which are an integral part of the Ultimate Edition and not sold separately).
Still, the 2010 editions of both the Student and Elementary encyclopedias improve on the past in terms of both coverage and facilities: the Homework Helpdesk is a collection of useful homework resources including a video subject browse, online learning games and activities, online subject spotlights, and how-to documents on topics such as writing a book review. There are also Learning Games and Activities: hundreds of fun and interactive games and activities to help students with subjects like Math, Science, and Social Studies. Both versions are updated monthly with new online-only articles.
The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from articles about new topics and personalities in the news, it offers additional and timely content and revisions on a dedicated Web site. The digital product includes a staggering number of links (165,808!) to third party content and articles on the Web. The GeoAnalyzer, which compares national statistical data and generates charts and graphs, is now Web-based and greatly enhanced.
The Britannica would do well to offer a browser add-on search bar and to integrate with desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Currently it offers search results through Google but this requires the user to install add-ons or plug-ins and to go through a convoluted rite of passage. A seamless experience is in the cards. Users must and will be able to ferret content from all over – their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web – using a single, intuitive interface.
Some minor gripes:
The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Britannica are still surprisingly outdated. Why not use a more current – and dynamically updated – offering? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?
Despite considerable improvement over the previous edition, the Britannica still consumes (not to say hogs) computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes it less suitable for installation on older PCs and on netbooks. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 4, less than 1 Gb RAM, and less than 10 Gb of really free space, the Britannica would be clunky at best.
But that’s it. Don’t think twice. Run to the closest retail outlet (or surf to the Britannica’s Web site) and purchase the 2010 edition now. It offers excellent value for money (less than $40, with a rebate). For less than the price of an antivirus software and for a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, you will significantly enhance your access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom.
DISCLOSURE The product was provided to the author at no cost.
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