The Canadian Encyclopedia Plus bills itself as a complete multimedia reference work on CD-ROM; it incorporates a somewhat improved text of the Canadian Encyclopedia, as well as the Gage Canadian Dictionary, the Columbia Encyclopedia (Fifth Edition), and the Enhanced Roget's Electronic Thesaurus. It also throws in "3,300 multimedia items."
And of course, for the many topics that have entries from both the Columbia (symbolized by a little international globe in the margin) and the Canadian (symbolized by a wee parochial maple leaf) there's a difference in national outlook. For example, the Canadian entry on the Vietnam war is harder on our government's (relatively minor) involvement than the American entry is on theirs. And the Columbia doesn't contribute any "multimedia" entries.
In fact, though there are many nice photos and illustrations, making TCE+ fun to browse (I accidentally found, for example, two good reproductions of work by Lionel Lemoine Fitzgerald, a painter affiliated with the Group of Seven who lived just down the street from my house), the multimedia portion of the the CD-ROM as a whole is weak, heavily represented by bird calls and video clips of Canadian writers and politicians. And though the animated sequences range from the Battle of Quebec to Plate Tectonics, there are only twelve of them in the whole production. They cover their subjects well, considering they only have about a minute and a half to do it, but I found myself wistful for the Grolier Multimedia Enclyopedia's surprisingly clear animated exposition of levers and mechanical advantage. ("Good Lord!" I thought, "I may finally understand this!"), or even the overlapping transparencies of the human body of the encyclopedias of my youth. There is nothing so brutally useful or fascinating in these animated sequences, although at least the narrator's accent is Canadian.
The package also integrates the Gage Canadian Dictionary, which will be even more familiar, and gets middling marks as a working dictionary, and one that isn't particularly Canadian, in that it prefers American spellings -- "color" to "colour," say -- even in its text, though naturally it does include Canadianisms like tuque, or bluff (as in a stand of trees). Nor is the Gage especially scholarly, though of course students interested in etymology should just be marched straight over to the Oxford English Dictionary anyway.
The enhanced Roget's Electronic Thesaurus is also integrated into the dictionary, and it's, well, a dictionary-style thesaurus. Good for finding a synonym when your mind has gone blank (and with an integrated dictionary students won't end up saying the wrong thing by using a word they don't know), but it's not a true thesaurus: it doesn't organize words into categories. With a real thesaurus you can use categorization to go from having an intuition that the word you want has something vaguely to do with putting things together to finding (aha!) adduce in fairly short order; this electronic version is just a synonym hunter, although to be honest that's all most students want. (Adduce doesn't appear in it at all, by the way.)
Finally, ready at almost anytime, is a Canadiana quiz. It's challenging, and with every answered question you get a piece of a Canadian picture (like Canada's coat of arms) that you then move around to complete a puzzle. A pleasant diversion, and I got fourteen out of twenty-two right without pressing the "clue" button.
That's a round-up of the content of TCE+, but of course it's the software design that makes or breaks a multimedia endeavour. In this case, the array of tools around the main screen takes a while to figure out; at first you keep finding yourself in modules you don't want to be in. Casual or occasional users will probably need help. And the combination of the two encyclopedias is a little awkward. TCE+ also includes a "Research" function that lets you gather articles, etc., related to your topic of interest in a folder, and highlight the relevant text, although again, it takes a while to get comfortable using it. By comparison the Grolier multi media encyclopedia has a less ambitious, but easier-to-learn interface.
TCE+ has two search modes: Search, which lets you use Boolean operators, and SmartSearch, which lets you type in what you want to know in plain English (the computer apparently then hunts your text for key words and just does a standard Search). There are also an option for narrowing your search results by weighting the search parameters, but it takes time to set up properly. It's faster just sorting through the hits a standard Search turns up yourself.
Still, the longer I've used it, the more fond I've become of TCE+. It is fun just to browse through, and it does do the work of three or four reference works in one. Once students get the hang of it, they'll find it highly useful. With practice they'll start to enjoy using it.
A larger question is whether CD-ROM is the right medium for this information in the first place. It's not really faster to look things up on a CD-ROM than it is in paper encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. -- probably slower. And whereas several students can share volumes of a bound encyclopedia, only one at a time can really use TCE+ -- and while they're using it, they're also monopolizing a computer. I'm not sure whether the chance to actually see and hear Irving Layton talk about poetry for thirty seconds or so makes up for some of the practical difficulties. On the other hand, if you already have the computer equipment, having all of these reference works gathered on one CD is economical.
At my most cynical, I think the real purpose of an encyclopedia on CD-ROM is to facilitate plagiarism (just cut and paste!) but that's unfair to TCE+. For students who have to time to learn its ins and outs, TCE+ will make studying things Canadian fun enough to increase their interest in the subject.