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THE GOODS : Not Bound by Limits of Paper Sibling


Cut into the granite in huge letters above the entrance to the main library at Penn State, my alma mater, were these words of wisdom: "A TRUE UNIVERSITY IS A COLLECTION OF BOOKS." I would look at those words and ponder, "So, why am I paying all this tuition when I could just get a library card?"

In the future, maybe all you'll need for a "true university" is a computer with a CD-ROM drive. These devices can access the vast amount of information that can be digitally stored on CDs in text, sound, graphics, photographs, animation and even video.

We're still in the early era of CD-ROM development, but with their capability to store so much data, it's not surprising that several companies have already put out CD-ROM encyclopedias. None of the ones now available come close to duplicating the comprehensiveness of heavy-duty encyclopedias such as the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica. But few people have that heady a reference work in their homes, anyway.

Although it's enormously pleasurable to sit down and browse through book volumes, there are advantages to the CD-ROMs, too. In addition to not being limited to print matter, they also can include electronic search tools, and they are generally much cheaper than their bound siblings.

To test three of the most popular CD-ROMs--Compton's Interactive (available for about $80), Grolier Multimedia (about $99) and Microsoft Encarta (about $89)--we tried an assortment of searches on all of them. Information was sought on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, military ranks, the Stonewall gay-rights riots, which just had its 25th anniversary, and Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Compton's, although it looked rather nice on the computer screen, was the least useful, by far. Its so-called videos were often just still pictures of some person or object, with sound playing in the background.

The Beethoven video, for example, shows a bust of Ludwig while a 35-second music clip and voice-over let you know he was an "extraordinary" composer who eventually went deaf. The video of "World War II" covered the whole war in 2 1/2 minutes. As for the test searches, there was a 35-second audio clip of King's speech (but it wasn't easy to find), no listing of military ranks, no mention of Stonewall (and only a tiny bit of text on the gay-rights movement) and one sentence on Hokusai.

The flashy new version of Encarta did far better. It was a pleasure to use and includes the full text of the 29-volume Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia. It has several engrossing animated videos to help explain natural and scientific phenomena, such as how glaciers are formed and how the eye focuses.

The photographs are often spectacular and there are plenty of them (5,567, according to Microsoft). Its browsing technique--clicking on many of the words automatically takes you to other entries--is seductive, and Encarta helpfully includes short bios on each contributor to the text. Microsoft also says that regular updates of the encyclopedia will be available.

As an information resource, Encarta gets mixed reviews. On the tests, the King speech got only 20 seconds (and the text entry on King is disappointingly short). There was no listing I could find of military ranks and no mention of Stonewall. Hokusai got an informative four paragraphs, but no pictures of his works.

The Grolier CD-ROM is the most clunky looking of the three, and it does not seem to be as comprehensive, in text or audio/visual materials, as Encarta. But it was sure fun to explore. Its search functions are very fast, easy to use and flexible in the ways you can explore the encyclopedia.

There are several somewhat obscure video clips--such as a segment of Dwight Eisenhower's prophetic farewell-to-the-presidency speech--that are fascinating. And the animation, including how a volcano is formed, was engrossing.

As for the tests: There were two 30-second audio/visual clips from the King speech, a full table of U.S. military ranks, an article on gay/lesbian activism that mentions Stonewall and a short entry on Hokusai, but no pictures of his works.

All three CD-ROM encyclopedias are available in both the Macintosh and Windows formats.

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