Publisher: Dorling Kindersley and Google
Cost: $27-$40 for the book, online directory is free
Tested: Feb. 2-8, 2004
Dorling Kindersley has been my favorite publisher both in print and on CD-ROM (which it unfortunately abandoned a few years ago). More unfortunately, it also removed its awesome free World Desk Reference from the Web after my rave review was published.
This new encyclopedia, released in late 2003, is a classic Dorling Kindersley reference work of informative text and illuminating illustrations. (The contributors of the encyclopedia entries are acknowledged in the book, and so are the project designers, editors, picture researchers and the picture librarian, whose job must be a dream). But no matter how marvelous the print encyclopedia is, it still does not belong to my territory of digital reference works reviews. However, Dorling Kindersley teamed up with Google and produced an interesting hybrid reference where digital and print formats complement each other rather than just replicating each other.
This hybrid resource consists of a smart and beautiful print encyclopedia of nearly 450 pages and a complementary Web site. The encyclopedia has refreshing text that defies aliteracy, about 2,000 splendid illustrations (photos, drawings, tables, charts and timelines) and a well-selected directory of about 1,000 Web sites related to the topics discussed in the encyclopedia. The Web portion is not a replica of the print edition, but rather it is a collection of links that enhances the book. Most of the links are excellent and are often absent from the increasingly size-obsessed directories that some time ago gave up quality for quantity.
The interesting thing is that Google made its fame and fortune through its search engine, not its directory. The directory is merely another of the many implementations of the Open Directory Project (ODP), albeit with the nice and unique feature of listing sites within categories ranked by the number and weight of incoming links.
The encyclopedia follows the original encyclopedic treatment of topics and offers nine sections: Space; Earth; Nature; Human Body; Science and Technology; People and Places; Society and Beliefs; Arts and Entertainment; and History. And while you can click on the symbols of the nine categories, you will see only one example from each topic, such as dinosaurs from among the 39 other topics (such as cells, evolution, fossils, prehistoric life, ecology and habitats) within the Nature category.
On average there are links to three to four sites for each of the 340 topics in this special directory of more than 1,000 Web sites. For the dinosaurs topic, there is a link to one of the science sites of the BBCi (which handles every topic superbly), another link leads to a video on the Discovery Channel (another safe bet of quality), the third links to a site that shows animations of how the dinosaurs moved, the fourth link goes to the home page of the extremely rich Jurassic Park Institute site and, if its superb Dinopedia does not satisfy kids' interest, the fifth link takes them to the Kinetosaurs site of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
Some topics have more links, such as the one about painting which has seven, while the other end of the spectrum is represented by the Renaissance with its single link to a site about Leonardo daVinci, which is actually within the overcrowded History section. I would agree with listing it both under the Arts & Entertainment and the History sections, but if there is only a single link about one of the best-known Renaissance artists it should be under the former section. Such anomalies, however, are exceptions.
Even if there are only three sites for a topic, as is the case with Hinduism, they are invariably so objective, information rich and illustrative that they are worth 30 other sites. The three links about Hinduism take you to a site about Hindu worship at the American Museum of Natural History, admittedly more for high-school students and adults than lower grade students; the second takes you to a Smithsonian site about Hindu art with a perfect 20-page PDF teacher guide as a bonus; and the third one leads to the British Museum that not only tells the story of Brahma in an animated script (as promised by the link title, but also to a wonderful picture gallery of the early Hindu Gods and links to the Ancient India site of the British Museum, yet another splendid tool to prepare for a visit, or learn about the culture, art and religion of India.
A nice clipart collection from DK enhances many of the topics, and these images can be downloaded and used according to rather liberal guidelines. For comparison, none of these sites are listed under the Hinduism topic in the Kids & Teens section of the Google version of the Open Directory, which is better than most of the lists under other topics. By the way, the special directory created for the e.encyclopedia provides an extra link to the equivalent topic in the Kids & Teens section of the Open Directory, as well as a pointer to the page in the print encyclopedia. This is true for all the keywords that I checked.
There are a few topics that have disappointing links, such as the one about decolonization with its single link to a video snippet of Prince Charles' speech on behalf of Great Britain giving control of Hong Kong back to China. There could have been links to the United Nations' Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, to the summary of prime minister Harold Macmillan's "wind of change" landmark speech to the South African parliament, and to many other high-quality sites about the decolonization process by France, Portugal and other colonizers that are less frequently discussed in American textbooks. Overall, the History section needs some improvements as there are too many topics (I counted 78) and too few sites, as if the compilers had run out of time. But there is no deadline for the online directory, which is one of the many advantages of digital versus print.
The online directory can be navigated only through exact keywords that appear in the print encyclopedia. This does not mean that you must buy the book, but you should for the benefit of yourself and your patrons. True, most of the time it is a no-brainer to guess the keywords correctly, such as science, technology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, energy, heat, materials, sound, light or color, to name a few within the Science & Technology section.
The only difficult category is Nature, as users are likely to try searching for elephants, whales or monkeys, or even more specific names such as Indian elephant, killer whale or howler monkey. But none of these will yield results as there are only three keywords for the Mammal section: mammals, endangered species and conservation. In other words, a strictly controlled vocabulary is used for accessing the directory. However, Google still offers its very accommodating "Did You Mean" question if you misspell the valid keyword renaissance as renaisance.
If I had my way I would allow the software to accept keywords that appear in of the book's index. This, of course, might add a lot of additional work to the compilers of the directory. As a compromise, it would be a nice gesture, and a motivation to steer users of the online directory toward the print encyclopedia, by showing users where in the book they can find related text. This does not require any additional intellectual work because the book's index terms are already available.
For example, the users would find nothing online by typing in apartheid or South Africa. Still, there are three topical areas where apartheid is discussed and illustrated in the print encyclopedia. One is the topic about Southern Africa (and Google does not ask "did you mean Southern Africa?" when you type in the keyword South Africa), the other is decolonization and the third is social equality. If users were advised that they can find materials in the print encyclopedia on pages 244, 245, 305 and 434, they might befriend the idea of looking up the information in the book.
Not only is this an outstanding book, but it is also very affordable. The list price is $40, but I found it for $28 at Amazon.com, and it qualified for free shipping with five-day delivery. The high-quality links to Web sites make the deal even sweeter because even small libraries can, and should, purchase it. This hybrid reference is a perfect example of the synergy between print and electronic resources. It is good news that by June an e.science encyclopedia is to be published by Dorling Kindersley and Google.