Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Microsoft Encarta 2001:
A Review

By Valerie Serdy

2001, Valerie Serdy 

Any time I was assigned a research project in high school, I immediately hit the books.  I always started with a general encyclopedia.  I read articles until I could refine my area of interest, skipping from one volume to another until a large pile of black books with red bindings surrounded me.  This very general research gave me enough background to understand more detailed works and apply that new knowledge to a basic framework I had built using the encyclopedia.   

I got out of the habit of using general encyclopedias when I no longer had a set at my immediate disposal, and by educating myself away from research papers titled, "How Colored Cellophane Affects the Growth of Beans."  However, when I started writing again, I needed to do research.  What are the parts of a sailboat called?  What goes on in the fishing industry?  When were glass windows commonly available? 

Having worked in the software industry, I turned to the web to answer my research needs.  Everything can be found on the web, but it usually takes some digging.  We've all experienced the problems with web-based research: dead links, pages with poor navigation (or no navigation!), and pages that sell you sailboats, but don't teach you what the parts are called. 

I recently bought a new computer, complete with a zillion programs already installed on it, including Microsoft Encarta 2001.  In a fit of frustration after a web-based research session, I installed and used Encarta. 

I was pleasantly surprised.  The interface is similar to web pages, complete with Back and Forward buttons making the encyclopedia easy to navigate.  Longer articles have a Contents page that lists the section titles; each subtitle is a hyperlink, allowing you to skip the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon if all you want to know about is the Pacific salmon.   

These Contents pages also include additional resources: "further reading" takes you to a book list complete with a link to Barnes and Noble to allow you to purchase the book; "related articles" is a list of articles available within Encarta; "web center" is a list of web pages chosen by Encarta's editors as useful picks.  (If you choose to view these web pages, they will be displayed in Encarta unless you change your settings.) 

Articles with potentially similar content are provided at the end of the current article.  For example, an article titled "Sailing" listed the articles "Boats and Boatbuilding" and "Ships and Shipbuilding" for further reading.  In addition, keywords in an article are hyperlinks to other articles.  Luckily, each keyword acts as a hyperlink only once: an article about sailing uses "wind" as a hyperlink once rather than every time the term comes up. 

Not having used an online encyclopedia before, I was surprised by the search function.  I tried to search for "mideval," not realizing I had spelled the word wrong.  Encarta returned a list of correctly spelled words from which to choose.  "Medieval" returned a nice long list of articles, including "Renaissance," "Middle Ages" and various pictures of medieval items.  The list of results closes when you choose an article, which made me nervous thinking I'd just lost all my search results, but you can easily get the list back by clicking the Find box again.  You can also save articles in Encarta's Favorites list. 

Encarta has a few flaws and idiosyncrasies.  The program always starts out maximized regardless of how you may have resized it during your last session.  It also starts up playing a cheerful tune that can be a bit disconcerting if you've left the volume up after your last jam session with Smash Mouth. 

The "related articles" feature seems to need some work as well.  If you click an item from the "related articles" list, Encarta tries to show you just the portion of the article you wanted by scrolling the article to the correct spot and placing a little marker next to that spot.  I've had a hard time finding what I'm looking for using the marker.  It either never seems to be in quite the right spot, or the reference is very vague and short. 

All in all, I've found Encarta to be a great research tool as well as an idea generator.  Try searching on "gods" and not coming up with ideas at everything Encarta returns.  Searching Encarta is considerably more efficient for my purposes than the web, especially when all I really want to do is ensure a consistent level of technology by determining when water clocks were commonly available.  If you find yourself using a computer that has it installed, give it a try.