Multimedia presentation is a major selling point of electronic encyclopaedias. With around 22,500 photographs and illustrations, 240 videos and animations, and 3000 sound and music clips to support its 100,000 articles and entries, Microsoft’s Encarta Premium Suite 2003 certainly scores highly in that department.
Another selling point for electronic encyclopaedias is the ability to search rapidly for information. Searches in Encarta Premium Suite 2003 return ‘hits’ from the encyclopaedia articles and also from the integrated Encarta Interactive World Atlas and the Encarta Dictionary and Thesaurus. The results of searches are made much more productive through a ‘web’ of links to related information that has been hand-crafted by Encarta’s editors. For example, a search for the term ‘memory’ returns a ‘hit list’ of articles with ‘memory’ in the title or in the body text. Encarta’s editors have provided links to major articles on three different areas in which the concept of memory is important -- psychology, history and, of course, computer architecture. Selecting any one of these then takes you to a ‘Home page’ that organises all of Encarta’s resources in this area. The Memory (Psychology) page, for example, gives you the clickable contents list of the major article on the topic, plus clickable lists of related articles, multimedia resources such as illustrations, photos, video and audio clips plus interactive items such as quizzes.
This enhanced word searching proves powerful when you know what you are looking for. For more general browsing, Encarta's designers organise access to its vast store of information through ‘centres’. Encarta’s articles, maps, multimedia resources, study tools, online information, historical timeline, geographical tours, statistical information and charting tools and knowledge games are each given access through their clickable centre. In a printed encyclopaedia, just flicking through its pages uncovers a wealth of interesting information ‘on the fly’. Encarta’s centres make such serendipitous browsing much more compulsive. The Timeline centre lets you scroll through events starting in geological time right up to the recent mapping of the human genome. The Timeline display shows significant events within their historical context and is an absorbing way of exploring topics you find interesting. The Tours centre brings together some of Encarta’s multimedia resources. There are 3D tours of ancient buildings, including the Acropolis in Athens, Abu Simbel in Egypt and Beaumaris in North Wales. Its 2D tours of natural and man-made artefacts range from Mount Everest, through cities such as Paris and Hong Kong, to the Grand Coulee dam and the Space Shuttle. There is also a large number of map-based ‘treks’ that illustrate geographical concepts and political, religious, economic and climatic divisions around the world.
Encarta’s concerns for making its contents accessible through searching and browsing are complemented by a variety of tools to help you work with its contents. Accessed from the Study centre, Encarta’s Researcher tool helps you gather together selected information from the encyclopaedia with information from Web searches plus your own notes and turn the collection into a report. To help with homework and other assignments, there’s a selection of project starters -- these are ‘crib sheets’ to help select content and structure factual essays and creative writing projects. New to Encarta 2003 is a Curriculum Guide that’s designed to help parents and teachers find information from Encarta and the World Atlas on specific subject areas. Curricula are provided for England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia, at A, AS, GCSE and Key stage 3 in a range of subjects including English literature, biology, chemistry, geography, history, physics and science.
One weakness of Encarta is its avoidance of maths: its science topics tend not to include examples of calculation. Its greatest strength lies in the way that the original US encyclopaedia has been transformed to reflect UK and European concerns. To create an UK ‘identity’ for the first release some 6 years ago, a 40-strong team of editors supported by a team of 300 consultants created or significantly reworked between 6,000 and 7,000 articles. To maintain and develop that core of ‘local’ information, a team of 19 editors source between 400 and 500 new articles each year and review around 5,000 and rework them to reflect UK interests. For the Encarta Premium Suite 2003, the result of these labours comes on four CDs (or one DVD). Working with the four-CD set can involve very frustrating disc swapping: if you have enough storage space, a complete installation to your hard disk radically transforms use of this excellent resource.