The Encyclopedia Britannica 2009
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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The Encyclopedia Britannica 2009 (established in 1768), both in its Ultimate (now also called "Student and Home") and Deluxe versions, builds on the success of its completely revamped previous editions in 2006-8. The rate of innovation in the last three versions was impressive and welcome. It continues apace in this rendition with Britannica Biographies (Great Minds and Leaders), Classical Music (500 audio files arranged by composer), and a great Workspace for Project Management (a kind of friendly digital den). Generous 6-12 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; eleven yearbooks; 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 as user-friendly as the Encarta. With a new A to Z Quick Search feature, monthly updates and the aforementioned 6-12 months of free access to its impressive powerhouse online Web site, it is bound to give the former tough competition.
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, unlike in the Encarta, 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 10,500 articles culled from the last 11 editions buttress and update the Encyclopedia's anyhow impressive offerings.
The Britannica provides considerably more text than any other extant encyclopedia, print or digital. 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 22-30,000 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 to Harry Houdini, 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 is a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.
The Britannica's 84-103,000 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 and interactive tutorials, but it 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: with Wikipedia and even the Encarta around, the Britannica's brand is distinctly adult and scholarly.
Still, the 2009 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.
The current edition is fully integrated with the Internet. Apart from the updates, 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 many laptops. If you own a machine with anything earlier than Pentium 3 and less than 4 Gb of really free space - forget it!
The Britannica uses a new graphic and text renderer. On some systems, the user needs to modify his or her desktop settings to get rid of jagged fonts and blurry photos. The software also seriously conflicts with security applications (especially anti-virus and firewall products). This edition, though, is finally compatible with the latest QuickTime.
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 2009 edition now. It offers excellent value for money (less than $40, with a rebate) and significantly enhances you access to knowledge and wisdom accumulated over centuries all over the world.
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