Publisher: HighBeam Research, Inc.
Cost: partially free
Tested: July-August, 2009
Disclosure: HighBeam Research, Inc. became part of Gale in December 2008
At this much-coveted URL, there is far more than meets the eye of the user who looks up the list of ready reference sources. Actually, it offers the largest free collection of widely respected encyclopedias, guides and compendiums of Gale and Oxford University Press, including many Oxford dictionaries, as well as a collection of almanacs, biographies, maps and images, along with subscription-based access to magazine, journal and newspaper articles, TV transcripts and some additional ready reference sources. The site needs a far more complete listing of all the sources, consistent and correct indication of the completely free sources in the result list, and an advanced mode of searching to increase its popularity and efficiency.
The encyclopedia.com domain must be familiar to many users who still remember the pioneering days of the Internet. It has a very complicated and long history, going back almost 20 years, when Infonautics Inc. created encyclopedia.com as a free Web site. The site served as a lead-in to the subscription-based eLibrary.com Web-site, which had an even more dazzling history of ownership changes. In short, encyclopedia.com was a useful and novel resource in the mid-1990s.
In 2001, Patrick Spain, one of the co-founders of Hoover's — the then-revolutionary, user-friendly, splendidly designed and partially free (much more than now) corporate directory — acquired the two assets and domains for his company Alacritude, Inc. Spain was one of the smartest Web entrepreneurs, and he beefed up the source base of both resources, then changed the company name to HighBeam Research. This was at a time when nouveau-rich but brutally incompetent firms—such as those of the extremely ill-named Divine Information Services, which I referred to as Infernal Information Services—bought Web companies as frequently as Imelda Marcos bought shoes, to drive them bankrupt faster than similarly endowed banksters did with banks and other financial services 70 years ago (when the term was coined), and in 2008. Luckily, encyclopedia.com has not been victimized in this process. Others not so lucky, including the innovative Northern Light, Inc. and RoweCom, were driven into the ground. The acquisition of the latter left many libraries without very expensive journals that they subscribed to. There are a number of other completely free, high quality reference sites; the outstanding Bartleby.com (although it is deeply disappointing that the site no longer offers the Columbia Encyclopedia); the even more outstanding Answers.com sites (which have many of the Gale encyclopedias, and a few of the Oxford dictionaries); and the excellent OneLook collection and metasearch engine. OneLook covers more than a thousand open access dictionaries and a few encyclopedias. However, hundreds of the dictionaries have only few or very few terms, presumably created when a date was cancelled, or the urge of creative social computing hit the compiler for a few hours. Others have a very narrow topical range, which is alright for all those who are, say, would-be mountaineers, handball players, or experienced embroidery devotees wanting to reach out and share.
There are many other smaller, open access reference suites combining a handful of encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs and atlases such as the Historica Foundation. The suite includes the Canadian Encyclopedia, its junior version (now called Youth Encyclopedia of Canada), and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, along with a modest collection of biographies and historical documents and a very good collection of articles from MacLean magazine from 1995. Microsoft will discontinue updating the Encarta suite in November, 2009, but, hopefully, it will not remove the excellent free subset.
The Reference.com site has some very good dictionaries (mostly from Merriam Webster), the Columbia Encyclopedia, the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia and Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus. Farlex has a small but high quality mix of medical, legal, financial and general interest encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauri and deserves special mention for its superb literary usage examples extracted from literary works.
All of these are good collections, but they are not in the league of encyclopedia.com. Oxford University Press has a puny, freebie site at AskOxford.com with four modest reference sources and a good quotations dictionary. The only reason that I mention the free AskOxford.com service is to contrast it with the far broader, free subset of the dozens of Oxford titles in the source base of encyclopedia.com.
The most unique and striking feature of encyclopedia.com is its unusually large collection of free encyclopedias and dictionaries. Actually, there is much more than meets the eye of users or reviewers who happen to look up the list of sources, as encouraged by one of the main menu options.
There is a list of the thousands of magazines, journals (including academic journals) and newspapers in topically classified subsets. I did not deal with this huge segment of 80 million articles (according to the blurb), focusing instead on the free subset of encylopedias, dictionaries, thesauri and almanacs, as well as the traditional, ready reference sources.
The ready reference sources are listed under three major categories: Encyclopedias, Almanacs, Transcripts, and Maps; Dictionaries, Thesauruses, Pictures, and Press Releases; and News Wires, White Papers, and Books.
The first lists 62 resources in the respective reference category. About a third of them are encyclopedias, guides and compendiums. There are 20 map collections, six almanacs, and the rest are miscellaneous reference sources. The second category also lists about 60 items. The third category lists about 260 items.
Actually, there are many more than 20 substantial encyclopedias in encyclopedia.com, and it is baffling why this important list is so incomplete, and why the items are listed in reverse alphabetical order.
Right from the first term in my test suite, DNA, results included important but unlisted encyclopedic sources, such as the following Gale encyclopedics: World of Forensic Science, Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security, the World of Microbiology and Immunology, the Encyclopedia of Cancer, and the Encyclopedia of Aging. The World Encyclopedia from Oxford University Press (OUP) is also missing from the official source list (but it is mentioned prominently elsewhere on the site).
The same was true for dictionaries. The DNA search returned many OUP dictionaries not listed in the respective category, such as the Dictionary of Biology, the Dictionary of Plant Sciences, the Dictionary of Ecology, and the Dictionary of Zoology.
The test term "anthrax" returned entries from several additional unlisted OUP dictionaries, including the Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military, the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, A Dictionary of Nursing, and A Dictionary of Contemporary World History.
There were many, substantial free entries from the Encyclopedia of World Biography for many of test subjects: the first African-American writer who published in the U.S., Harriet E. Adams Wilson, and many more for Martin Luther King, Jr. — from excellent, but unlisted sources, such as A Dictionary of Contemporary World History, the Oxford Companion to American Military History, the Oxford Companion to American Literature, the Oxford Companion to United States History, and the Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions.
If you can take my word for it without showing screenshots or providing links, the following prime, ready reference sources showed up in my tests but are not listed among sources on the pages where the software takes the users who may want to review the list. Many of them belong to the free subset that shows the entries in their full glory.
As for dictionaries, the roster of unlisted items is similarly long, and important to know about, in judging the scope of coverage of encyclopedia.com. Once again, many of them have a substantial number of articles for free, such as the Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians, representing the most precious components of encyclopedia.com. Once again, many of them show the complete entries for free.
Had the examples of items missing from the source subcategory pages of encyclopedia.com not been so long so mouth-watering. I would not have elaborated on this issue so doggedly. A few of the reference sources listed above are mentioned in sidebars of the search template, and the home page refers to 49 encyclopedias and 73 dictionaries. However, the "official" list, where users are directed to "view all reference sources", makes a big disservice for this worthy resource by omitting a large proportion of the best, free resources, which provide complete articles or dictionary entries — not just snippets. encyclopedia.com should include all the sources to give this worthy service the credit it deserves.
It is ironic, and adds insult to injury, that many of the sources that do appear on the "official" list are not free. Rather, they are teasers that show snippets and encourage users to take a 7-day trial subscription. This would cheese off many users, and gives a bad impression of encyclopedia.com. The prominently mentioned Webster New World Dictionary is also a teaser type, and it is a double whammy that the entries are in reverse alphabetical order and often with the definition incomprehensibly cut. For icing on the cake, the blurb on the home page about this dictionary refers to primary A-to-Z listing of definitions, which turns out to be a Z-to-A listing.
The revised list should indicate, item by item, through a symbol or a code those sources, those that require the reasonable monthly/yearly subscription fee and which ones do not. Below I list some of the teaser sources that came up for my test terms, offering only snippets of information.
Sometimes the snippets are enough to get the gist of the encyclopedic or dictionary entry, but often they are uselessly short—even from the very same source, as illustrated by the sufficient snippet about zealot and the irritating one about three wise men, both from The Oxford Guide to People and Places in the Bible. Chances are good that some other source items in the same series (such as those in the Concise Oxford Companion, the Oxford Guide, the Who's Who, the Concise Oxford Dictionary series) are also only partially free. It even more important, then, to provide a full list of all the entirely free sources.
For currency issues, none of the ready reference suites can beat the Web sources that are part of the 24/7 process of producing news items for TV programs, such as BBC News, and CNN, or for the best news magazines, like TIME. On the web sites of all these sources there was information readily available about the passing of Corazon Aquino as I was writing this review. Earlier, Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia was far the best and far the most current in updating. But regretfully, in March 2009 Microsoft announced that the Encarta services will be discontinued.
It is not realistic to expect high currency from the free ready reference sources, because that is not their goal. They are based on materials prepared for printed encyclopedias, dictionaries, and almanacs published one or more years before the current year. The only exception in the free category of "Webified" ready reference sources that I am aware of is the superb Information Please Almanac, with time-line segments about national and world events which are up-to-date until the very last days of 2008. Infoplease is somewhat special because it stopped doing print editions. There is, of course, the Web-born Wikipedia, which is not just up-to-date, but up-to-the-minute. However, there are questions of objectiveness and accuracy of the information, and when they are going to be vandalized by a lurker.
With that said, in case of a few, widely licensed, very popular dictionaries and encyclopedias (such as the American Heritage Dictionary and the Columbia Encyclopedia), there can be significant currency differences between ready reference collections. The Columbia Encyclopedia, which appeared in the results for most of my test terms, including one for DNA, serves as a good illustration. It is far more current on encyclopedia.com than on the Yahoo Reference platform, even if both provide access to the 6th edition.
There are at least a dozen sites that license this encyclopedia, but not all of them cared to update it regularly with new or modified entries that are created in preparation for the 7th edition (which is not yet published, although some implementations and many links on libraries' web sites ignorantly claim and propagate misinformation about the non-existent 7th edition).
As for decently current versus belated update of the 6th edition, here is an example. While you find a current entry about the French president Nicolas Sarkozy in encyclopedia.com, you would not find any hits for him — except for a sponsored link — in Yahoo's much belated implementation of the Columbia Encyclopedia 6th edition. The irony is not lost on me that the Yahoo implementation prominently mentions the currency of the Columbia Encyclopedia .
Another illuminating example from my test is the entry about Saddam Hussein. On Yahoo, his entry ends with his being put on trial (not on "trail" as it appears in the outdated Yahoo version). The entry provides the bottom line for his life in more ways than one, informing the user that he was convicted and sentenced to death, and after the rejection of his appeal he was hung (high enough and dropped deep enough to the bottom of a ditch).
I estimate that the stale Yahoo version of the 6th edition was not updated for more than 5 years, while the version on encyclopedia.com seems to have been updated less than a year ago. Yahoo should perhaps do something to keep it at least as current instead of using a stale version of the 6th edition.
It is very confusing that free items are labeled as premium articles on the result list, even when they are free in their entirety, such as the one on Biodetectors from the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security.
Alphabetical browsing by lead terms of main entries is a good idea. The alphabet is broken down to subset ranges, such as Cap-Cars, and within subsets to pages with about 75 entries by page. It is slower than type-ahead, look up, but the huge list of lead terms from so many sources may justify it.
Browsing the index list certainly gives a good first impression about the richness of the sources, as shown in the entries about stress and about compound terms starting with stress. Of course, there are other relevant terms where "stress" is not the lead word, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or repetitive stress injury, but expecting rotated entries in this huge list is not realistic.
However, it is a serious shortcoming that the browse-list of main entries does not include items from all the sources, not even from the free sources. For Edward Albee, for example, there are no entries in the browse list from The Columbia Encyclopedia, the World Encyclopedia, and the Encyclopedia of World Biography. Once again, the real richness of the high quality free sources of encyclopedia.com is much underrepresented.
Searching efficiently begs for an advanced mode where users could specify if they want to limit the search to the title field, to a specific date range, to one or more of their most preferred encyclopedias and dictionaries, or to one or more genres.
The designation of the document genres should also be made consistent and logical. Currently, publisher names, cover page thumbnails and generic descriptive names (book, encyclopedia) are used. It makes no sense to add the generic genre book when the source clearly is a dictionary. Neither does it make much sense to use the name of the publisher in this position or the cover page thumbnail for some encyclopedias, but the generic term "encyclopedia" for other. This confuses the users, and it makes them more confused when the term Premium article appears next to some entries, especially if they are actually free, as I illustrated above.
Using simple symbols for the genres, and the $ sign for premium (for subscribers only) items would make the result list more appealing. Removing the redundancy from the lead-in to the entries, such as Encyclopedia entry from The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, would also help in making better use of the very precious space left for content by the ads. Freeness comes in exchange for enduring ads, so I am not complaining, just suggesting some improvements for the benefit of the boomer generation.
Offering three citation format options for every item is a great help for everyone, especially as providing the list of cited references in correct format is the bane of publishing, or even for submitting an essay for assignments.
One of the best software features is the side by side display of multiple entries (especially for those who prefer to look up dictionary definitions and encyclopedia articles from more than one sources for corroboration, such as I do a tad obsessively). It adds to the pleasure that the users can decide which entries should appear side by side if there are more than three matches. These triptychons offer an excellent method for at-a-glance or deeper comparisons, as illustrated in the example of entries about Edward Albee. With that said, it is still an enigma for me why the most comprehensive biography about Albee from Gale's own Encyclopedia of World Biography does not show up on the menu of comparable items.
Adding the excellent and free encyclopedias and other ready reference sources is the greatest advantage of Gale's acquisitions of encyclopedia.com. It made many of the best encyclopedias, guides, companions, and dictionaries of Gale and Oxford University Press available free of charge with the complete articles and without subscription fees.
When using the same search query on the www.highbeam.com site, only snippets of the encyclopedia and dictionary entries are shown, while on the encyclopedia.com site the complete entries are shown for most of them, as illustrated by the entry from the Encyclopedia of World Biography for John Updike from Highbeam versus the one from Encyclopedia.com.
Gale should proudly display the full list of the encyclopedias and the other ready references sources that it brought to the table, and mark the ones that are freely available in their entirety, both in the source list and the search result lists. Doing this will certainly raise the number of happy users who cannot afford in the current budget squeeze era to subscribe to the Gale Virtual Reference Library and/or the Oxford Reference Online services, but still need high quality ready reference source.