Online Encyclopaedias

By Nigel Paull

The impact of technology on the publishing format of encyclopaedias in the last decade has been immense. Printed sets of encyclopaedias plummeted in popularity, being replaced by CD-ROM versions. The introduction and refinement of online encyclopaedias is now challenging the market for CD-ROMs.

With the advent of the CD-ROM encyclopaedia, users were awed by the graphics, fast searching capabilities, hypertext links to related articles and ease of operation. As prices tumbled CD-ROM encyclopaedias became commonplace in stand-alone computers or school networks and users could afford to update every couple of years.

With widespread use of the Internet major encyclopaedia companies began utilising its benefits to achieve better currency of information. At first, this was limited to monthly downloads. The next step was using the CD-ROM while on line and obtaining additional, or more current, information from Internet sites listed at the end of abstracts.

The progression to totally on line encyclopaedias has gathered pace in the last year or so, with the major encyclopaedia publishers offering their products on line. There are, of course, other onl ine encyclopaedias of a more specialised nature. A quick search of the Internet reveals a range, from The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, to the unauthorised Online Encyclopaedia of Disney Animated Shorts.

What we are witnessing in schools is the gradual demise of the CD-ROM encyclopaedia and its replacement with the on line encyclopaedia. The major benefit of the on line encyclopaedia is that information can be updated frequently, easily and cheaply. Links can be added or subtracted as needed. Two on line encyclopaedias were trialed as examples for this article, World Book Online and Grolier Online. They both offered updates of events that had occurred in the last 24 hours. Each company has designed their on line encyclopaedia with school libraries and classrooms in mind. World Book Online comprises the respected World Book Encyclopaedia and features streaming audio and video, the ability to print sections of an article, articles from daily, weekly and monthly publications, study aids, maps, teacher resources and links to Internet sites that have been selected and monitored by their editorial staff.

The innovative Grolier Online contains three distinctive encyclopaedias: New Book of Knowledge Online, Grolier Multimedia Online and Encyclopaedia Americana Online, each catering to different reading and interest levels. Subscribers are offered a choice of two or three of these different encyclopaedias. Among the features are links to controlled non-commercial Internet sites selected by their editorial teams, an interactive atlas, multimedia materials, timelines, news features, lesson plans and searching tips.

As the use of online encyclopaedias increases, their websites may have to be added to local library catalogue systems. As with adding other websites, there are implications for SCIS, school libraries and library automation system vendors. SCIS is already planning to trial cataloguing Internet sites.

Schools who are interested in using online encyclopaedias should avail themselves of the free trials being offered by publishers. Before subscribing, it would be expedient to consider the following questions:

  • Is the school's computer network capable of simultaneously offering Internet connections to the library and classrooms?
  • Is the speed of the school's modem sufficient? Should an ISDN line or satellite link be considered?
  • Is the school's Internet Service Provider capable of maintaining adequate service throughout the day?
  • Is the subscription cost-effective when combined with on line charges? If the school has recently purchased a CD-ROM network licence, it may be prudent to wait a year or two.
  • Is the content and scope of the on line encyclopaedia adequate for the students? Is the Australian content sufficient?
  • Is the on line encyclopaedia authoritative with signed major articles and quality Internet I i nks? • Is navigation and searching easy? Will the students be able to follow the online help, or will too much instruction be necessary?
  • Is the multimedia being downloaded quickly enough over your network?

By trialing several of the on line encyclopaedias available, Teacher Librarians will be able to determine suitability for their own school's needs. However, it is probably only a matter of time before most networked schools succumb to the benefits of having access to an on line encyclopaedia.

Nigel Paull

Nigel Paull