Vol. 4  Iss. 5
The Chemical Educator 
1999 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 

ISSN 1430-4171
S 1430-4171(99) 04323-1 

CD-ROM Review

Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia

Reviewed by
George R. Long
Department of Chemistry, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA15701

Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia. CD-ROM, 8th edition, published by John Wiley. Glenn D. Considine, Douglas M. Considine and Terry G. Nash (eds.) ISBN 0-471-29323-7. $295.

The classic Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia is now available on CD-ROM. The inherent advantages of such a format are the search capabilities a computer provides and the ease of electronically transferring information from the encyclopedia to a personal document. This has been the trend in recent years as people begin to rely on easy searching and the copy-paste features of CD-ROM-based material. In principle the search features would allow students to find information on a number of topics quickly and easily, and may even show them unexpected relationships. For example, when searching for "laser" it is possible to find a number of interesting applications for lasers as well as their history and technical details of the laser operation. In a text version of an encyclopedia, the information would be spread across different entries and thus some information might be missed.

The CD-ROM encyclopedia uses "Folio Viewer" to achieve this. This provides a number of searching features, as well as a table of contents, a browsing mode, and text export. Unfortunately, the interface is complex, with several interacting frames that make it somewhat clumsy and confusing. The system imposes a steep learning curve on one hoping to achieve any kind of complex search. The interface screen is cluttered and includes a search menu and a search input box at the bottom of the page. Each one seems to be slightly different, depending upon the "view" chosen. After some time interacting with the software, the arrangement became clearer, but I think that most users will simply avoid this in favor of the alphabetical index (which provides no advantage over the book).

The software does not provide for easy cutting and pasting to other documents. The export feature does allow the user to select an entry for output, but the output is in ASCII, so that any character formatting (e.g., subscripts and superscripts) in the article is lost. The Windows "cut" function also only works with ASCII text (again, character formatting is lost). Figures and equations are nearly impossible to copy and export, yet these are the features most likely to be used in a student report or in a handout. (I expect one could use a screen-capture program to obtain these images.) This difficulty may be intended to protect copyrights, yet using the occasional figure under the "fair-use doctrine" is common, and needs to be supported to make the product more useful)

The complexity of the user interface is unfortunate because I find the quality of the individual entries to be quite high. Obviously it is not possible for a reviewer to read each entry, but the chemistry-related entries are extensive and seem to be well-written. My only criticism of the encyclopedia's content is of the quality of the figures used. The CD-ROM format is uniquely suited to multimedia, but this advantage is not exploited. The level of the content is quite high, but is still accessible to beginning students. Most entries start with one or two general paragraphs, and then move on to more detailed information. This style allows the Scientific Encyclopedia to be usable at both the high school and college levels. In fact, chemistry professors will also find the information useful. In particular, the information would aid in developing course work for nonscience majors because one of the strengths of the CD-ROM is the ability to relate theoretical details to practical applications of technology (once the search methods are mastered).