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Online Encyclopedias: Which Are the Best Ones for Students?

Technology in the Classroom CenterGood, free reference material is available on the Internet. Today, Education World writer Mary Daniels Brown analyzes and compares a handful of free online encyclopedias.

The Internet is a vast sea of information. But how reliable is that information? Can students do meaningful research on the Internet?

After examining online encyclopedias, Education World answers YES! to both of those questions.


For this article, we considered eight online encyclopedias that offer free information. To compare the encyclopedias, we conducted two searches on each: Abraham Lincoln (a humanities-social sciences topic) and the solar system (a science topic). We purposely chose those two topics to see how each site handled multi-word search terms. All eight encyclopedias handled our two-word search terms with no problem.

Some of the encyclopedias offer advanced search functions, and we've noted those in the descriptions of the individual sites. But for the comparisons, we used the basic search function on each site.

In analyzing the search results at each site, we looked first at the depth of coverage of the main article about the topic. Next, we considered whether the main article contains or links to related material, including photographs and illustrations, either within the encyclopedia site itself or elsewhere on the Internet. Finally, we noted whether the encyclopedia takes advantage of the Web's potential by including multimedia material such as video and audio clips.

Discussion of each site concludes with a description of the age group for which that encyclopedia seems most appropriate.

The vast majority of online encyclopedias that we reviewed are for upper elementary students and above. Very little is available online for young students, who are better served with CD-ROM encyclopedias that can be downloaded onto any computer.

We've listed the encyclopedias roughly in the order in which we found them most useful, but users should compare the descriptions to determine which are most appropriate for their purposes. In many cases, we had trouble deciding whether one entry should go before or after another. So though a big difference exists between the entries at the top of the list and those at the bottom, much less difference is between consecutive entries in the middle.

In some cases (such as Infoplease, Encarta, and Funk and Wagnalls) the encyclopedias we reviewed are subsections of larger sites that offer complementary material. To keep the comparisons fair, we initiated our searches in the encyclopedia section of those sites.

Those site, though, often provided search results that hyperlink to material from other subsections. For example, search results about the solar system in the Funk and Wagnalls Multimedia Encyclopedia linked to images in the Media Gallery, technically a separate section of the Funk and Wagnalls site.

The ability to find free information on the Internet inevitably raises the issue of advertising. All the encyclopedias we examined contain ads in some form. The free reference sites provide the opportunity for teachers and parents to discuss with students the difference between subject content and advertising and the necessity for businesses to use ads to generate revenue so that the companies can continue to provide a free service to Internet users.

Now on to the reviews.


Encyclopdia Britannica, the granddaddy of print encyclopedias, is now available in its entirety on the Web. The site also allows users to search Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and to browse by clicking on such topics such as News, Sports, and Weather.

Users access the encyclopedia either by exploring categories, such as Arts & Entertainment, Science & Technology, and Health, or by entering a search term. In addition to the simple search function, the site features an advanced search page that explains in detail how to search the site, how to narrow a search to particular areas of the site, and how to use multiple-word search terms.

Searches on bring up results in three columns: The Web's Best Sites, Encyclopdia Britannica, and Magazines. (There's also a fourth column, clearly labeled, of related products that can be purchased through the Britannica Store. Most of those items are books and videos, but our solar system search yielded a glow-in-the-dark T-shirt.)

The Britannica staff has evaluated and rated all the suggested Web sites. The entries under Magazines are full-text articles that have been reproduced (with permission) on; according to the site, magazine entries are "[s]elected articles from more than 70 of the world's top magazines -- including Newsweek, Discover, and The Economist."

The first page of the Britannica entry for each of our topics included a hyperlinked outline of the entire article. Readers can use those links to jump directly to a particular section of the article or can use the Next and Previous links at the bottom of each page to move through the article. Each of the article's Web pages contains between three and five screens of text, so users do not have to wait for repeated downloads of small chunks of material.

Within each article are hyperlinks to related material within the encyclopedia. At the end of each article is a set of hyperlinked initials that reveals the name and credentials of the article's author. Each article also ends with a link to a page containing information about the topic in other articles and with a bibliography of printed resources.

Our search on Abraham Lincoln brought up a long article with photographs and an extensive bibliography, as well as several recommended Web sites. The entries in the Magazine section included articles from Humanities, Library Journal, American History, Biography, Public Interest, and Civil War Times Illustrated.

The main article about the solar system included video animations of the theories of the universe that Aristotle, Copernicus, Kepler, and Ptolemy put forth. Those narrated animations use Windows Media Player. (Even on a high-speed DSL Internet connection, the clips took a while to download. You may experience "stuttering" playback, in which the material is played back faster than it can be downloaded. If you have this problem, click your browser's Refresh or Reload button or click the Stop or Pause button on the Windows Media Player console to allow time for your computer to download the material.) is most appropriate for high school students and adults.


This is a subsection of the larger Funk and Wagnalls, which has many resources, including a dictionary, a thesaurus, a world atlas, an animal encyclopedia, and a news feed.

From the main page of the encyclopedia section, users can choose Article Index to browse topics alphabetically, Categories for such topics as Arts & Leisure and Social Sciences, or Hot Topics for a list of interesting news and history features. The main page also offers a search box; a drop-down box allows users to choose which section of the Funk and Wagnalls site to search. Click for instructions on doing an advanced search, such as a search for a multiple-word term.

The encyclopedia also includes a section called Term Paper Tools, an extensive, step-by-step guide to writing a term paper that students will find helpful. The section includes about 12 sample term papers. The introduction to the section stresses that the sample papers are examples only, not meant to be turned in for credit; the introduction further defines plagiarism and tells students how to cite sources, including Funk & Wagnalls, correctly. Yet the introduction also states that more sample papers will be added in the future, and we have to wonder why. Aren't 12 examples enough?

The first page of the main article of each of our topics offered an outline of the article with hyperlinked sections. Each article is extensively cross-referenced with hyperlinks. The entire article appears on a single Web page, so there's no waiting for repeated downloads. The author's initials appear at the bottom of each article with a hyperlink to a page that gives the author's name and credentials.

Our search for Abraham Lincoln yielded 123 results, with the main article at the top of the list. This article includes a photo of Lincoln as well as other related photos and illustrations. The article also offers audio clips (in Flash and QuickTime formats) of Lincoln's statement about emancipation. However, there is no indication of who the speaker is; some students might think they are hearing Lincoln himself speak.

Our search on the solar system yielded 66 results, and again the main article topped the list. And here the Funk and Wagnalls Multimedia Encyclopedia shines. A narrated animation demonstrates and explains the movements of the planets around the sun. The article also contains a photo of Jupiter taken from a Voyager spacecraft and links to photos of other planets located in the site's Media Gallery. (Technically, the Media Gallery is a separate portion of the site, not part of the encyclopedia, but the hyperlinks make navigation easy.)

At the bottom of the main solar system article is a link to bibliographies of additional print resources. The main article about Abraham Lincoln doesn't include a bibliography, but the Civil War article, to which the Lincoln article hyperlinks, does.

The depth of the information makes the Funk and Wagnalls Multimedia Encyclopedia appropriate for advanced middle school students and high school students.


Encarta Reference is a subsection of the larger Microsoft Encarta. The Reference section includes a talking dictionary and a world atlas in addition to an abridged version of the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia available on CD-ROM.

Near the top of the Encarta Reference page is a search box, which searches the entire Encarta site, labeled Encarta Enquire: Enter Your Question. The search apparently uses a natural-language query, a technology that allows users to express their search term in the form of a question, such as "What is the solar system?" But typing just "solar system" takes less time and produces the same results. Natural-language queries may be helpful for more complex topics, however.

Below the Encarta Enquire box is another box that searches just the encyclopedia. The results page offers "Encarta's Best Match" (which in both of our searches was the main article about the topic), a hyperlinked outline of that article, and links to related material within the encyclopedia. Below this material is a section called Encarta Search Results that allows users to choose specific items from a drop-down box (such as "Abraham Lincoln: logrolling as teamwork") or related Web sites to explore. Below that material is yet another section listing Web sites located by an MSN (Microsoft Network) search. (Many of those duplicate the Web sites given in the section above.)

The first page of each article offers an outline of the article both at the top of the page in a drop-down box and in a column to the right of the text that provides hyperlinks. This column on the right also includes small pictures of media items such as photographs or video as well as links to the related Web sites.

Also appearing in the sidebar on the right is a section called News and Updates, which offers periodical material from Electric Library with "free registration required." Only when users click on this link do they discover that Electric Library is a subscription service, that they are signing up for a 30-day free trial period, and that the "free" registration requires a credit card.

Encarta articles are heavily cross-referenced with hyperlinks. Users can print either an entire article or individual sections of an article in a printer-friendly version that eliminates the ads and sidebar material. Each printout includes the correct bibliographical citation. Students who do not print out the material and do not go to the end of the entire article can find out how to attribute the source by clicking on the How to cite this article link at the end of each section.

Our search for Abraham Lincoln brought up an in-depth article. Fifteen media items accompany the article, including photographs of Lincoln and of Lincoln's birthplace, a scanned image (though small and unreadable) of part of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a voice recording (played by Windows Media Player) of an actor reciting from Lincoln's first inaugural address of 1861. Related Web links include material from the White House, the Illinois State Archives, and the Library of Congress.

The article about the solar system is also extensive and includes discussion of the history of theories about its origin. Multimedia items include a short video with narration about events around the sun's corona, photos of each of the nine planets, and a diagram of the structure of a comet.

Because of its depth of coverage, Encarta is best suited for advanced middle school students, high school students, and adults.


Electronica, which is also available on DVD-ROM, touts its specialized technology of "deep hyperlinking." For users of Internet Explorer version 4.0 and above, every word in an article, including titles and captions on the pictures, is "hot," which means that it can produce a list of hyperlinks to related material within Electronica. Users can click on any word -- or highlight and click on a phrase such as "Gettysburg Address" -- to bring up a list of hyperlinks for that word or phrase.

Because of this extensive hyperlinking, according to the site, Electronica articles are brief, averaging 400 to 600 words. The site's sections About Electronica and About the Brain explain in detail the development of this encyclopedia and its technology.

The encyclopedia's search field appears prominently at the center top of the home page. Users can also browse the encyclopedia's contents by categories.

Electronica allows for extensive Internet searches on the user's topic. At the top of each search-results page is the hyperlink Search Excite for [your topic]. Use that link to look for more resources on the Web.

The search-results page of Electronica lists the articles alphabetically; the link to the main article about Abraham Lincoln is listed 11th of 35. Some of the 35 articles have only a slight connection to the 16th president.

The main article contains two images -- a photo of Lincoln and a scanned image of the Gettysburg Address -- and five documents -- facsimiles of five pages of the Emancipation Proclamation. The article also provides links for 17 searches on Excite involving Abraham Lincoln (such as Search Excite for Abraham Lincoln & Slavery).

Our solar system search turned up surprisingly little material. True to its word, Electronica delivers short articles; the article on the solar system is only two paragraphs long.

The extensive hyperlinking that Electronica counts on to maximize its information delivery can be a mixed blessing. It often causes users to click continually back and forth between pages that each contain only a small amount of material. And the use of hot words often produces irrelevant links. For example, clicking on Union (as in "Abraham Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union") in the Lincoln article turned up 768 results, including American Federation of Labor.

Despite its hyperlinking, Electronica's coverage is not as deep as that of the encyclopedias discussed above. It seems most useful for upper elementary and middle school students.


The Infoplease Encyclopedia is a subsection of the larger Infoplease, which includes almanacs, a dictionary, and an atlas. The encyclopedia includes approximately 57,000 articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (which we also review below).

The encyclopedia search page offers two search boxes: one for just the encyclopedia and a second that searches all of Infoplease or a specific section other than the encyclopedia.

The Infoplease Encyclopedia articles contain some hyperlinks to related material elsewhere in the encyclopedia. But because the articles are shorter than those in the encyclopedias discussed previously, they have fewer cross-references.

Our search for Abraham Lincoln found 89 documents, but many of those "documents" turned out to be separate sections of one main article. The material is divided into short sections, each appearing on a separate Web page. That structure, which necessitates waiting for repeated page downloads between short chunks of information, may frustrate users.

The Lincoln article contains no photograph of the president, but we were able to locate one by using the Search Biographies tool available on every page. The final section of the main Lincoln article is a sizeable bibliography of print resources. A related article on the Gettysburg Address gives the text of the final version of the famous speech, which, it notes, differs slightly from the spoken version, and includes a list of two books on the subject of Lincoln and Gettysburg.

The main article about the solar system provides good basic coverage, with information about both early and contemporary theories about the origin of the solar system. But the article contains no diagrams or pictures.

The Infoplease Encyclopedia is appropriate for upper middle and high school students or for anyone who wants a concise overview of a particular topic.


This new edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia, 2000, is available on Bartleby Books Online, which offers a large collection of other reference materials as well: a thesaurus, a dictionary, several collections of quotations, and several volumes about English usage. According to information on the site, the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, contains "over 50,000 article entries, 40,000 bibliographic citations, and over 80,000 cross-reference entries."

The search window appears prominently on the encyclopedia search page. The site offers a guide to the encyclopedia that explains how terms are listed ("Faulkner, William" but "Joan of Arc"). There's also a pronunciation key. The link Bibliographic record demonstrates how to cite the encyclopedia's information properly in term papers.

The Infoplease Encyclopedia, discussed above, is also based on this edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia, and the content here is the same. The presentation, however, is somewhat different. The Abraham Lincoln article, for example, appears on one long Web page here instead of being spread out over many separate pages as in Infoplease.

The search results are also listed differently here than in Infoplease. The results page offers "best matches first." A little bar next to each result gives a percentage that indicates the likelihood that the result pertains to your search topic. Also beside each result is the link Show Related that produces a list of articles that relate to the article on the original results list. And under each result is a short excerpt (two to three lines) from the article, highlighting the search term in context.

Like the Infoplease Encyclopedia, Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, is appropriate for upper middle and high school students, or for anyone who wants a concise overview of a particular topic.


This free encyclopedia from Electric Library, a subscription reference resource, offers articles from the Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Third Edition, 1994. Users can easily search the encyclopedia from the main page or browse articles by clicking on the appropriate letter noted in the volumes of the encyclopedia set.

Our searches for both Abraham Lincoln and the solar system brought up very short articles that contained no diagrams or pictures. Each search-results page included a list of related material available, for a fee, from Electric Library. And educators might be concerned by this ad that comes up on the results page: "Specialists will do your research for you at! Get quality answers at the right price. $10 off your first question."

Our search results made us wonder whether is available only to show users what they're missing if they don't subscribe to Electric Library. The superficial material makes this site of questionable use for anyone. People who want a concise overview of a topic would do better at Infoplease or Bartleby's Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.


We include Compton's here only because the site may show up in a search for online encyclopedias.

We were concerned when we found the following statement on the site's home page: "All online services associated with this product may be cancelled, changed, modified, discontinued, terminated at any time for any reason." We became alarmed when we checked the current events section and found three events dated nine months earlier.

Finally, when we typed our search terms into the box and hit the search button, our browser repeatedly returned a "page not found" error.

Mary Daniels Brown
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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