A virtual reference room

Resources: Encyclopedias other useful tomes now accessible online and on disc let students do heavy studying without the heavy lifting.

August 29, 2002|By Larry Magid | Larry Magid,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A generation or two ago, encyclopedia salesmen would scour neighborhoods, knocking on doors in search of parents willing to part with several months' pay to help ensure the educational success of their children. Their wares often became a fixture of family rooms, growing old, dusty and woefully out of date.

Now you can free up those bookcases for novels or knickknacks and use your personal computer to consult an even more impressive set of up-to-date reference works.

There are basically two approaches. You can purchase a suite of reference tools on CD-ROM or DVD, or you can get access to encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, atlases and other reference works on the Internet. Some Internet sites charge a monthly or annual fee, but others are free. And there are even ways for library patrons and students to get free access to fee-based services.

CD-ROM or DVD products like the Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite or the Microsoft Encarta Reference Library can easily be kept current with online updating and give far more information than a print encyclopedia.

The Britannica 2003 Ultimate Reference Suite comes with three encyclopedias: the big 32-volume set, a lighter version for students and another for those in the early elementary grades. You also get two Merriam-Webster dictionaries, two thesauruses, an atlas and thousands of images, animations and videos.

The Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003 also comes with an extensive encyclopedia and quite a few extras, including a book of quotations, a dictionary, a thesaurus and an atlas. Both have plenty of video, audio and pictures, as well as homework helper tools.

The CD-ROM versions of the two products come with multiple discs that you have to swap in and out, or you can get either set on a single DVD. Better yet, both products give you the option of installing the program and all the data on your PC's hard drive. That takes up a whopping 2.5 gigabytes, but saves you the time and trouble of inserting the CDs or DVD each time you need access.

If you have a broadband connection like DSL or cable, it might be faster to use a Web version of an encyclopedia. The full online versions of both Encarta and Britannica have the same text and most of the photographs, maps and illustrations of the disc-based versions, although they lack some of the video and audio material. Students, especially elementary school pupils, can benefit from the multimedia experience of the disc-based products. But if you are researching a paper, the text and illustrations may be all you need.

Britannica (www.britannica.com) charges $59.95 a year for access to the online version of its content; Microsoft offers access to its full online version (www.encarta.msn.com), only to those who buy the CD or DVD version; Encarta does not have an online-only subscription option for consumers.

The Encarta Reference Library, on CDs or DVD, is $75; the Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe, available on CD only, is $45. The disc-based version of Britannica costs about $60 but can sometimes be found for as little as $40.

The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia ($29.95, www.grolier.com) comes on two CDs and includes a 60,000-article encyclopedia, a world atlas and a student research center (at the Grolier site, click on "Grades 7+"). The World Book Encyclopedia Deluxe Windows CD-ROM ($23 for Windows or $74 for Mac OS X, at www.worldbook.com) is also a two-CD set with every article from the print edition plus 9,400 illustrations and two hours of video.

If you have an extra $995 along with 4 1/2 feet of bookshelf space, you can buy the 20-volume printed version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The CD-ROM version is also expensive, at $295, as is a one-year subscription to the online version ($550, though pricing is different for schools and libraries). For $89 a year, however, individuals can subscribe to Oxford Reference Online (www. oxfordreference.com), which includes a variety of smaller Oxford dictionaries, including the 240,000-entry Concise Oxford Dictionary and the 180,000-entry Oxford American Dictionary of Current English, a law dictionary and other resources.

But before you spend money on a reference tool, consider the alternatives. If you're a student or a parent, check with your local school librarian or with the Web site or reference desk at your local library to see if free access to fee-based reference services like Britannica, eLibrary or the Oxford English Dictionary is available. Many libraries subscribe to electronic data services that you can use from home by supplying your library card number and a personal identification number.

Many elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities also provide free access to databases, sometimes including otherwise expensive ones like Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, which lets you search for full text articles from newspapers and magazines, legal texts and other reference works.

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