Multimedia Microscopy

Christmas Review - how do multimedia encyclopaedias
cover microscopy and microscopic life?

by Dave Walker

To while away a few dark, cold winter evenings, I thought it would be interesting to see how a selection of multimedia encyclopaedias cover microscopy and microscopic life. Admittedly not the sole basis on which a prospective purchaser would buy a multimedia encyclopaedia (!), but possibly gives an indication of how each tackles and presents topics which cut across history, technology and science.

The three compared (borrowed from friends) were:

(It would have been nicer to use Worldbook 1998/9 but the core material doesn't usually change significantly in a year or so).

I compared these with the text edition of Encylopaedia Britannica 15th edition which is one of the definitive English language enyclopaedias in book form and would be available in most libraries and many schools.

The software producers websites give plenty of information on each multimedia encyclopedia's content and presentation. I used a variety of topics small and large covering various aspects of microscopy and microscopic life. Although one of the powerful features of the 'Multimedias' is their ability to link to Internet web site material and download updates, I only explored their 'stand-alone' features.

So this is a tabular result of how the Encyclopaedias got on.

All the CD's link well to other material on the CD so this aspect is omitted unless of particular note. World Book 97 has no book references, Encarta has a short selection on many topics, Britannica in both media often has extensive book references particularly for the in-depth articles..

Subject Search

(using topic and/or word search)

IBM World Book 97
2 CD's

Encarta 99 Deluxe
2 CD's

Britannica 99 Mulitmedia
2 CD's

Britannica Book
15th edition
29 vols., 2 vol. index + ref. guide.


Antoni van Leeuwenhoek No portrait.

Short but fair entry.

No bibliography.


Longer text entry,

No bibliography.


Extensive article, covering life, work and impact.

Short bibliography.


Identical text entry to CD.

Short bibliography.

Britannica best for depth,but others link well to related material.
Brownian motion No topic entry.

Links to related articles covers the topic.

Very short topic entry.

Links to related articles extend topic.


Extensive text entry.


Identical text entry to CD.

Britannica best for depth,but others link well to related material.
Cells Excellent illustrations, showing plant/animal cell structure, types of cell.

Good animations of cell division (meiosis and mitosis).

Good quite extensive text.

Good photo gallery of cell types. Typical plant and animal cell diagrams.

Animations of meiosis and mitosis.

Good extensive well structured article illustrated with diags. & photomicrographs.

Poor selection of images. Couldn't find plant/animal cell structure diagrams?

Apparently no animations/images of cell division (or diagrams?

Very extensive text article.

Illustrated with photos and line diagrams including cell division.

Extensive 28 page article same as CD.

Britannica CD has massive text depth, but appears poor for illustrations where Worldbook, Encarta are better.
Diatoms No image.

Good text entry.

Links to related articles, eg. algae, plankton.


Good text entry.

Links include one to Biodiversity collage.

Photos in related articles, including Ecosystems Spotlight.

Longest text entry.

Algae article has bibliography and classification details.

Photo in topic entry and in algae article

Same text entry as CD.

Algae article has bibliography and classification details.

Britannica CD does well for this as supported by Ecosystem Spotlight. (See special multimedia features below).
Protozoa Good photos of some types.

Good text entry.

Selection of photos of typical types.

Good text overview in protozoan and protoctista articles.

No images in protozoa or protist in-depth article? Some in Ecosystem Spotlight.

Good text article for protozoa and protist.

Protozoa and protist articles have super line diagrams.

Identical text to CD.

All link well to related articles to cover various aspects.
Microscope (optical) Good annotated diagram of microscope next to one with light path.

Good text summary. Aberrations covered in separate topic (no diags).

Images of two antique microscope. None of a modern compound. Ray diagram of compound 'scope.

Good text. Related article Optics covers aberration in text.

Poor selection of images. Couldn't find any image of microscope, or ray diagram?

Extensive text entry covering various aspects. Text/images of aberrations in Optics.

Line diagrams and photos. (e.g. Zeiss Axioscope and it's ray diagram).

Identical text entry to CD.

Britannica CD has extensive text depth, but apparently poor for illustrations where World Book, Encarta are much better.
Tardigrade No entry. No entry.

Mention of phylum in animal classification.

No image.

Good text entry.

Mention in classification of animals/arthropods.


Same text entry as CD.

Mention in classification of animals/arthropods.

Britannica CD and book best for small topic items such as microscopic organisms.
Special multimedia features of each which cover some aspects of microscopy and microscopic life. Animations include 'How a bee makes honey', blood.

Timeline configurable to Life Science and Industry/Technology.

(The '98/99 Edition may have extended relevant multimedia features).

Collage includes 'Biodiversity', 'War on Disesase, 'Coral Reef'.

Topic Trails include The Living World, Science and Technology.

Interactivity includes snake, insect and nautilus anatomy.

Time line.

'Spotlight' has an 'Ecosystems' section. A multimedia exploration including freshwater and marine life.

Time line configurable to science and technology etc.

Not multimedia(!) but possibly the best of the four for the number and quality of images and diagrams to illustrate scientific topics. Coupled with the text the large sections could standalone as monographs. Encarta's multimedia aspects are possibly the most extensive.

Conclusions on how they presented microscopy etc. (based on a much longer look at all three in addition to the listing above).

The depth Britannica offers is needed for good text entries on smaller topics such as microscopic organisms and biographies. Although all three can access web material which makes up for the shortfall to some extent with Encarta and World Book on such topics.

Britannica's text depth on larger topics is also impressive, but where Britannica falls down in my view is the limited images in some of the in-depth articles - images that were in the books. They may have been left off the CD version for space reasons but in some cases it's to the detriment of presenting the topic effectively (see examples in Table).

Athough Encarta and World Book don't have the same text depth, in some cases they both seem to be better supported by vital illustrations. Britannica seemed to be lacking animations that greatly aid some topics e.g. cell division, although it does have some nice multimedia enhancements eg. the Ecosystems 'Spotlight' feature which includes marine and freshwater showing a selection of microscopic organisms.

Overall ..... well you pays your money and takes your choice! A very narrow topic range was covered although perhaps it does highlight the pros and cons of each to some extent. Some users will want the text depth the Britannica CD offers, possibly at the expense of images and extensive multimedia enhancements. Others will want a less deep but perhaps more fun approach where arguably Encarta and World Book have the edge.

Comments to the author Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('dwalker','')">Dave Walker welcomed. (Especially if I've overlooked relevant features or made errors!).

These views are of course my own and not necessarily shared by other contributors or site administrators.


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Published in December 1998 Micscape Magazine.

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