Title: Information Please Almanac
Publisher: Pearson Technology Center
This publication has been a long-time favorite of mine. Exactly 10 years ago, the Web site of the InfoPlease suite got my cheers for the best free ready reference source in Peter’s Cheers and Jeers. Still, I almost gave the wrong title to this excellent ready reference source in this column by referring to it as Information Please Almanac 2009, but caught it before submitting my manuscript. The publisher does not use a year qualifier anymore for many good reasons – to be discussed below.
The almanac business is a crowded market in print and the paperback editions represent a good deal, with a price tag of around $12. Almanacs have always been a practical Christmas gift from our sons, much better than neckties, for sure. As there have been a variety of options, I usually ended up with at least three print editions each year, very useful in my job to compare and corroborate information.
The first claims to be the “most complete almanac for today’s world” with adjective complete in red type, The second claims to be “the world’s most comprehensive and authoritative almanac” and in spite of these virtues, it is the third one that is The New York Times #1 bestseller – which must give double pleasure to its publisher and double pain to The New York Times as a competitor. As for being most complete and most comprehensive – I don’t see any proof of it, certainly not in coverage and the publishers don’t give any proof, so it seems to be just cheap PR talk. The best-selling claim is not specific (as for time period, binding) but is at least theoretically verifiable. On Amazon.com it certainly is the leader among the 2009 paperback editions at #2, with The New York Times Almanac at #7 and TIME at #14.
However, this ranking is not reflected in the holdings information reported in the free edition of OCLC WorldCat. I originally wanted to check the data for the 2008 editions rather than the 2009 ones, simply because as of this writing, it is too early to expect that most libraries would have reported their holdings for very recently published/acquired books. This is not true for the TIME Almanac whose publishing pattern is like academic years at many colleges: starting in July and ending in June of the next year. I like this Almanac but this midyear to midyear span is unfortunate.
Oddly, there was no record found for The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2008 edition so I can use only the holding count for the 2007 edition which is a rather puny 92 libraries and it will hardly grow because of the more current editions. The 2008 edition of The New York Times Almanac is not impressive with its 73 holdings, the same disappointingly low number as for the 2007 edition. As for the holding information for TIME Almanac, 141 libraries already have copies of the 2009 editions, 246 for the 2008 edition and 227 for the 2007 edition (for two print versions for edition at the same time. It is too early to opine about the holdings of the 2009 edition, but the 21 holdings as of the first week of 2009 January is discouraging. I could not find any holding data for recent print editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Almanac. It seems that the publisher stopped producing its own print edition and made a deal to license its content for the TIME Almanac, which has the tagline “powered by Encyclopaedia Britannica”. The eBook edition is reported only by a few OCLC member libraries in Worldcat.org and so is the 2006 CD-ROM edition.
As for the alternatives of digital versions, the market is very disheartening (except for the impressive digital version of the Information Please Almanac) as I discuss in the software section of this review.
The Information Almanac that started in 1947 is not available in print anymore. This may sound like bad news but it is not. It is the result of a smart decision that was made after the launch of a very smartly designed Web site which brings us not only Information Almanac 2009 but the 2008 Year in Review (and, as a bonus, the 2007 Year in Review sections as well as the decade-by-decade and if you need more information, year-by- year breakdown of major events from 1900 to 2007 in history, politics, economics, sports and entertainment, in a consistent layout of informative headlines and photographs). The fact that these are browsable and searchable makes it like browsing a family photo album asking for details when needed from your grandma sitting next to you (who acts like the search engine).
Content-wise, we can refer to Information Please Almanacs (in the plural form), because beyond the general almanac, there is also a Sports Almanac and an Entertainment Almanac. (There is a Kid Almanac, too, but my high opinion does not extend to it for reasons I discussed and demonstrated in this column five years ago). When it comes to comprehensiveness, no single almanac for 2009 can compete with Information Please's richness, even if we just look at the Information Please 2009 components.
Then comes yet another huge advantage, that is possible only in the digital arena: the superb integration of the almanacs with many high-quality ready reference sources. These include the 6th edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia, which is freely available through many sites, but not necessarily with the updates the InfoPlease site offers (and some others, too).
There is a good atlas from Magellan Geographix (which shows copyright year 1997, but includes the new names of geographic entities, such as Mumbai, Chennai, although still refers to Serbia and Montenegro even though Montenegro seceded from Serbia in 2007, after the wave of genocide by the Serbs.
The Almanac is also enhanced by the very good WordNet Thesaurus of Princeton University and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the only freely available, unabridged, big-name dictionary. The CIA World Factbook is yet another useful enhancement to the solid country information content in the Information Please Almanac.
The currency of the Information Please Almanac can’t be beat by the printed almanacs, either. The entry about Thailand already includes the name of the latest, caretaking prime minister, just a few days after his emergency election by the parliament, followed by a short addition about the lasting protest and occupation of the Bangkok Airport by the People Power Party and the decision of the Thai constitutional Court.
The list of short obituary entries are the surest signs of the currency of an almanac and the Information Please Almanac stands way above the printed almanacs for 2009. TIME Almanac 2009 has these for famous people who died before July, 2008 (except for Jesse Helms who passed away on the Fourth of July in 2008, but it misses Tom Lantos who took over the chairmanship from Helms and died in February). The New York Times Almanac and the World Almanac and Book of Facts are more current by including deaths until November, 20008, but they are not as current as Information Please which already includes the 2009 deaths of Adolf Merckle, the German billionaire, Jett Travolta, the son of John Travolta.
There are however, a few disappointments as well in this regard in Information Please Almanac, missing the death of sociologist-humanist studs Terkel, or from the fields of arts and entertainment dancer/singer/actress Eartha Kitt, playwright Harold Pinter (both at this Christmas) and from the field of medicine, the passing of Michael DeBakey and Andrew Kantrowitz whose pioneering work in heart surgery was worth more than the billions of some entrepreneurs who passed away last year.
Information Please Almanac proudly flashes its currency by offering a special section, named Inauguration Factfile which certainly gets much traffic in the coming days
As I indicated earlier, the digital almanac market is very disheartening – except for Information Please Almanac. Surprisingly, the TIME Almanac and The New York Times Almanac do not have digital editions, even though both represent the best in digitization of current and archived magazine and newspaper issues and obviously have significant experience and well-established policy for free and subscription-based access. For their almanac, the perfect compromise model would have been what TIME does, making available the archive issues for print subscribers (irrespective of the time of their subscription). It would have been smart to offer free access to an online version for those who bought the respective 2009 almanac.
The World Almanac and Book of Facts is available digitally on EBSCO, Lexis-Nexis and the OCLC – but they present the dense data with a 1960s feel of computer output, losing much of the typographical design and layout efforts that went into producing the print editions.
Information Please Almanac is not perfect either in handling all the tables as you can see in this somewhat shifted table but still does it much better than OCLC, EBSCO or Nexis-Lexis, as can be seen in the companion table where the positioning of the columns is almost perfect.
It is a worthy feature of the software that it lets you browse the almanac similar to the print editions (which I happened to like doing). You can get a good feel about the structure of the Almanac, pick a subsection of a section and also see a list of related items – and follow either. The number of implicit links marked just by the usual blue color and the explicit links (listed as see also type of references) are impressive throughout the Almanacs. Most of them are internal references to components within the InfoPlease site, but there are also links to external pages.
One of the best parts of the Information Please Almanacs is how well the licensed content is integrated. The content of the original sources is intelligently restructured and reformatted in terms of layout, typography and color schemes, so the casual user may not even realize that the different components are from a number of different sources. Take as an example what happens when you type in the word Brazil. The result list includes an entry from the Almanacs, the Atlas, the Encyclopedia, the Dictionary – all from different sources but they look to be part of the same family.
The best software feature is the automatic contextualization of the process of looking up a chronological list, such as the Timeline of a given year. For sake of simplicity, I show an obvious example, looking up the timeline of events for 2001. It starts with World events that happened in Congo, Israel Macedonia. It shows some vital statistics about the world in 2001 in a small side box, offering links to further world stats detail. As you scroll down, major events in the world in the second part of the year show up, followed by U.S. events. This is followed by facts related to Economy and Sports, again with side boxes for further details, Scrolling further gives the highlights of the Entertainment industry, then a list of the most newsworthy movies and music albums released, followed by books and key science-related developments closed by a list of deaths in 2001. At every move you can make a detour, to look up, for example, the list of Nobel laureates beyond the ones already shown in the side-box for Physics and Chemistry when looking at the science section.
There are blogs and other Web sites offering much of the above information, but Information Please Almanac offers an excellent one-stop shop — and the reliability of the data. The only price that you have to pay for this quality and convenience is ads that are more unrealistic or more unappalling than those in TV commercials, especially when they are animated. I wish that the producers and publishers of other almanacs would pick up and implement some of the ideas of the Information Please Almanac.