The two most important factors in determining an encyclopedia's value are its content, and the ease with which users can find the content they are looking for.
Content. We asked our kids reviewers to give us four examples of recent problems where they could have turned to an encyclopedia for help, producing these test searches:
- How are mirrors made?
Compton's: Bingo! Described in detail the polishing of the glass and the process to deposit silver salts.
Encarta: Bingo! Provided detailed description of mirror making methods throughout history.
Grolier: Bingo! Described the earliest methods to modern processes.
World Book: Very brief answer. States that "most mirrors are made by putting a thin layer of silver or aluminum onto a sheet of high-quality glass."
Excite! Great answer found at Dr. Universe, but to a slightly different question - "How do mirrors work?" Numerous other articles on how to make telescope mirrors provide details.
- How does general anesthesia work?
Compton's: Bingo! Explained that anesthetics can depress the activities of the central nervous system and block the communication of nerve cells.
Encarta: Partial answer. Detailed article on anesthesia, including its history and methods of administration, but provides no specific details about how it works.
Grolier: Bingo! Explained two theories, one involving a neurophysiological reduction in transmission across nerve synapses, the other a biochemical reduction in the energy required to send nerve impulses!
World Book: Very brief. States general anesthesetics "block pain impulses in the nervous system."
Excite! Partial answer. Many articles designed to give information to expectant parents, and dental patients. Other highly technical articles on specific anesthetics.
- In baseball, what makes a curveball curve?
Compton's: Partial answer. States that the "trick of throwing curves lies in the spinning motion given the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand."
Encarta: Buzz. Although it notes that pitchers adjust the spin of the ball and the force of their throws, curve balls are never mentioned.
Grolier: Buzz. No mention of curveballs.
World Book: Bingo! States that spinning ball has higher air pressure on one side than the other, pushing the ball in a curve.
- What ended the McCarthy Era?
Compton's: Partial answer. Cited the televised Army hearings as the root of his undoing, and ultimate censure.
Encarta: Bingo! Detailed description of the rise and fall of McCarthyism, noting that "... members of [McCarthy's] staff had threatened Army officials in efforts to obtain preferential treatment for a former unpaid consultant of the subcommittee who had been drafted."
Grolier: Partial answer. Cited failure to substantiate claims in Army hearings as leading to his downfall.
World Book: Weak answer. Attributed the decline of McCarthyism to the end of the Korean War and the Senate's condemnation - but no reason given.
Excite! Bingo! Several sources noted the impact of an Edward R. Murrow report on Senator McCarthy in March, 1954. Others noted the embarassing discovery during the televised McCarthy-Army hearings during April, 1954, that the Senator had used his influence to try and get a commission for a drafted former aid, David Schine. Finally, the full text of the Senate's December, 1954 censure was also easy to find.
Ease of Use. SuperKids asked our kids reviewers to give these titles a test run. Their conclusion: all are reasonably easy to use, and selection of a favorite was a matter of personal preference and grade level, rather than superior design. Here are several key differences you may want to consider.
Compton's: Allows Boolean (AND, OR, NOT, ADJACENT, NEAR) searches of the full text of all articles, and by media type. Separate window panes for searching, multimedia, and text results. Double-click on any word to see definition.
Encarta: Search by article topic or keyword, using Boolean search parameters across all or specific media types. Also includes a wizard for less experienced users. Integrated dictionary.
Grolier: Allows title browsing and simple Boolean search combinations (AND, OR, NOT) of full-text of all articles, and by media type. Media and text must be sequentially viewed. Dictionary access via toolbar or keystroke combination - not by clicking.
World Book: Allows title browsing and simple Boolean search combinations (AND, OR, NOT) by article, paragraph, sentence, or heading. Media and text must be sequentially viewed. Double-click on any word to see definition.
Excite! With an experienced web searcher, this was pretty quick work. But finding the real answers isn't always obvious. The CD encyclopedia are honestly easier to use.
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