The World At Your Fingertips

Encyclopedia Britannica
Back in 1955 my parents bought a 32-volume encyclopedia, probably from a door-to-door salesperson. Those books have stood the test of time — they are still on the same shelves as they were back when Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Those books cost thousands of inflation-adjusted dollars but, for $69.96, you can buy an equally comprehensive encyclopedia, which, by the way, is a lot easier to search and not only has articles but video, sound and animation.

Of course, I'm talking about an encyclopedia on CD or DVD from Microsoft Encarta, Britannica, Grolier and others.

I had a chance to try out the new 2004 Encarta Reference Library Plus DVD from Microsoft and was indeed impressed by the sheer volume of information and media stimulation. In addition to its 68,000 articles, there are 25,000 photos, 400 videos and animations and 2,800 web sites, according to Microsoft. (I didn't count them.) This year, they have added 32 videos from Discovery Channel.

Encarta is also available on CD-ROM, but if you have a DVD player in your PC (most new PCs do), it's worthwhile to get the DVD version if for no other reason than you only have one disc to deal with. You have the option of copying all of it to your PC's hard drive, so you don't even have to bother with the DVD. You better have a lot of empty hard-disk space — it takes up more than 5 gigabytes.

Aside from the sheer volume of content, what I like about Encarta is the way it helps you discover information. Of course, you can search by entering in a topic to get directly to an article, but you can also discover information by browsing. The visual browser, for example gives you a series of icons representing countries, continents, historical events and even issues. Not everyone needs to watch videos or view animations, but some people do learn better by viewing than by reading.

You can also jump directly to any video, sound or animation. For some things, such as how a motor works, animations can be particularly useful because they demonstrate a machine's inner workings.

I also like the world atlas. I have an upcoming trip to Lancaster, England, but, until I checked on Encarta, I had no idea where Lancaster was located. Now I know that it's only a couple of miles from the Irish Sea and 208 miles from London. Of course, thanks to Encarta's virtual flights, I've already taken a virtual aerial trip over the United Kingdom and much of the rest of the world.

Children will find Encarta offers lots of activities, including a series of games and, of course, the Homework Center, where they will get quick access to a variety of tools — a dictionary, thesaurus, research report builder, chart maker and other more.

While a CD or DVD encyclopedia is the best bet for discovering knowledge, an online encyclopedia may be more practical for use as a reference tool, especially if you have a broadband connection to the Internet that makes accessing a Web site as fast as loading software from your PC. There are several online encyclopedias ranging in price from free to about $9.95 a month.

Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, offers online access to three of its encyclopedias (the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica, the Concise Britannica and the Britannica Student Encyclopedia) for $9.95 a month or $59.95 a year if you pay in advance.

Encarta provides free access to 4,500 of its articles at Members of MSN Network ($9.95 a month) get access to the more extensive 60,000-article version. is also free as is Advertiser-supported provides free access to Columbia Encyclopedia and several other reference sources.

Parents, if you're thinking of sitting your child down at an online encyclopedia or any other Web site, I suggest trying it yourself first to make sure that the content, interface and advertising policies are appropriate for your child., for example, displays some pretty obnoxious (though not pornographic) ads.

You also may be able to access fee-based online encyclopedias for free via your public library, school or university. Where I live, the Santa Clara County Library system provides free access to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Funk & Wagnall's new World Encyclopedia, Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, New Book of Knowledge and World Book Online, and you don't have to go to the library to access it. You can use them from home or the office by entering your library card number plus a secret PIN number. Check with your local libraries and, remember, most libraries will issue you a card even if you don't live in that community. Usually you have to go to a branch library to get a library card, so check with libraries in areas that you might be visiting. If they have access to online resources that you can use from home, you can sign up for a library card when you're in that town and use it when you get home.

About the only thing missing from computerized encyclopedias is that impressive set of books to line your shelves and impress your friends and neighbors.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid