CompuSchmooze April 2007: Encyclopaedia Judaica Online

CompuSchmooze April 2007: Encyclopaedia Judaica Online
By Steven L. Lubetkin
Copyright © 2007 Steven L. Lubetkin. All rights reserved.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica has been a mainstay for researchers in the to the history of the Jewish people for a number of decades.

Now, Thompson Gale Publishers, the new publishers of the Encyclopaedia, after winning prestigious awards and critical praise for the print edition of the work, is making the entire 22-volume Encyclopaedia available in an online interface.

Unfortunately, the online product misses a fabulous opportunity to take advantage of the rage media capabilities of the Internet. The online version uses a standardized text database architecture designed primarily for online text research.

It reminded me of the frustration of online research of more than 20 years ago, when only experienced professional researchers were allowed near the computer terminals to perform searches and then hand the results on paper to library patrons.

This implementation of the Encyclopaedia uses Thomson Gale’s standard format for online bibliographic databases. While it probably made sense to the editors creating the online structure, it isn’t designed for the casual browser, and is a rather sterile experience compared to some of the other multimedia-rich websites on Jewish topics that we’ve been exploring in this column.

Access to the online Encyclopaedia Judaica begins with “About This Publication,” a page that includes the physical characteristics of the publication, its standard book publishing number (known as the ISBN number), the number of pages in the publication, the number of volumes if it is a multiple volume publication, and a small thumbnail image of the cover.

There is a wealth of information in the online publication, just as in the printed version. You can review the articles in each of the volumes in a series of cascading subject headings that become visible when you click on a plus sign next to the topic or range of topics.

You can download an Acrobat PDF version of each article. However, all you see when you open an article is the text of the article with some hyperlinks to cross reference the text to other entries in the Encyclopaedia.

There are also some quirky experiences. While browsing through the Encyclopaedia, we found at least one hyperlink that were functional, but did not highlight the entire phrase to which they referred.

The online database also provides users with extensive information about proper bibliographic citation for each article, and it even lets you format the citation for download into EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, or RefWorks, popular bibliographic software used by research librarians. This is great if you are a research professional, but it’s probably not very useful for the casual reader/browser.

The ability to view illustrations and visuals from the printed Encyclopaedia also is limited. Because of the decision to use an existing bibliographic database structure, the editors effectively have prevented web designers from making the Encyclopaedia experience on the web more interactive and full of more rich content such as audio interviews, video clips, and high resolution photographs. Because of the structure illustrations are effectively disconnected from the articles to which they refer and you need to switch back and forth in order to view them in the context of the articles for which they were selected.

Clearly, the editors were focused on bringing of the Encyclopaedia into the online world in a database publishing format that would allow them to better manage and manipulate future editions of the print publication. This is a real case of disregarding the needs of the audience in an effort to make the publishing job easier.

Unfortunately, this approach misunderstands the full power of an Internet based publication, and severely limits the functionality that could have been achieved with a more integrated approach.

At $1,995 per printed 22-volume copy, this is not a reference work the average user will purchase for the home library. The online access price is not disclosed on the website.

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