CD-based reference software can seem a bit dull. For example, encyclopaedias been given away with new PCs for so long that they’re hardly even noticed any more. That’s a shame, because while the idea may not appear particularly interesting, the content of many reference CDs is fascinating, and much easier to read and access than it would be if you were to search the Web for the same information.
But what can you reasonably expect for fifteen quid, which is the price of this suite of encyclopaedic history reference titles from Hutchinson? An incredible amount of information, is the answer. Although supplied on a single CD-ROM, and accessed via a Web browser, this package actually contains six reference titles, all from Hutchinson. These include the Dictionary of World History, The Concise Chronology of World History, The Dictionary of Biography, the Dictionary of Ideas, the Dictionary of History Web Sites and the Helicon Book of Days.
Because of these different approaches to history, you can get the information you require in a range of ways. It’s possible to look for key individuals who have shaped particular events, or wanted chronologically through the past, or follow philosophical concepts and beliefs over generations. You can pick out the events that happened on a particular day (handy for birthdays and speeches) and peruse philosophical ideas.
From the simple interface you can choose to include any or all of the main ‘books’ in a search or list of available topics, after which you can wander through them as you choose. There’s a total of more than 21,000 entries, and the cross-references are surprisingly comprehensive, although these are within the individual titles; there’s not much linking between one ‘book’ and another.
There’s no audio or video content, just words and a selection of photographs, tables and other reference items. This reduces the initial ‘wow’ factor (although there’s a quiz to keep those with shorter attention spans interested), but means that more information is squeezed onto the CD. And it’ll run on anything from a Pentium 75 upwards, so it’s fine for those without the latest machines.
However, it’s not entirely without fault and could do with a minor update. One of the the quiz questions asks the name of the twin towers in New York, “the tallest” skyscraper in the city. But being a year or so behind the times isn’t much to complain about in a package such as this, especially for the price.
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