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Encyclopedia of computer science (4th ed.)
Ralston A., Reilly E., Hemmendinger D., Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., New York, NY, 2000. 2034 pp.  Type: Book (9780333778791)
Date Reviewed: Oct 1 2000

Just a few years ago, I would have lauded this book as a masterpiece. Now, unfortunately, I have a different opinion. This latest edition of the Encyclopedia of computer science is an extraordinary work of vast scope, written by a great number of recognized experts. Organization is everything in a reference book like this, which covers a huge variety of topics interrelated by a seemingly endless complex of connections. The hard work and intelligence of the editors are clearly evident in the way they have striven to index and cross-reference the material in several ways. The brief table of contents is supported first by a “Classification of Articles,” in which all of the articles, which appear in dictionary order, are arranged into a logical outline of the contents of the whole book. Next, at the rear of the book, there is an alphabetical list of the names of everyone referred to in the articles. Finally, there is a regular alphabetized index of subjects, 43 pages long in fine print, that extends the collection of potential clues enormously. (A poor choice was made, however, to alphabetize the index word-by-word rather than letter-by-letter, so that you find “database” not between “data analysis” and “data bus,” but after “data warehousing.”)

The articles themselves are both cross-referenced and referenced. Readers of the article on “Computers and Privacy” are told immediately that there are related articles on “Computer Crime,” “Information Access,” “Legal Issues,” and so on. The article ends with a six-item bibliography, whose last reference is dated 2000, which exemplifies the effort that has been put into bringing this encyclopedia up to date. Space does not allow more than brief mention of other valuable features, such as a 30-page list of definitions of abbreviations and acronyms, including frequently used file extensions. An appendix defines the mathematical notation and the abbreviations for terms and units. Unfortunately, the editors are a little careless about differentiating trade jargon usages from correct International System of Units (SI) practice. (I was disappointed, in fact, to find no reference to SI at all.) Another valuable feature is a five-language glossary of computer terms.

Even with all of its virtues, however, this book has a grave defect--the old-fashioned format. It is big and heavy, its size bordering on that of an unabridged dictionary, and carries a daunting price of $150. It would have been far better for the book to be published in a CD-ROM or DVD format with appropriate search software. To my knowledge, it is not now available in that form. I need hardly mention that there are reputable general encyclopedias readily available on CD, whose prices are roughly an order of magnitude less than in hardcover, and whose search procedures are vastly superior in speed and simplicity of use to the indexing techniques available in hardcover. I am mystified as to why an encyclopedia on this subject is not an exemplar of the benefits of computer technology.

There are other significant imperfections. Most of the articles are of high quality and by knowledgeable authors. Perhaps other readers can find omissions, but, except for SI units, I found entries for every computer-related topic I could think of. Unfortunately, there is a lot of variation in quality. (One has to fault the editors for this, but remember that their task was like that of conducting an orchestra all of whose players are virtuosos.) For instance, the article on “Modular Programming” is sketchy, no more than an overly long dictionary definition. In the article on “Grammars,” the level of mathematical abstraction is so high that I think the author did not have an accurate idea of the audience he should have been writing for. Neither expert nor novice could benefit from this article.

I also object to the amount of biographical material. While often fun to read, it could well be condensed or omitted in favor of harder stuff. I also think that a primarily sociopolitical topic such as “Women in Computing,” while undoubtedly important, is outside the scope of this book. On the other hand, the material that deals with the interactions of humans and computers, such as the article on computers and the disabled, is highly appropriate.

To sum up, we have here something like the Gutenberg Bible--great but, in this format, an expensive antique.

Reviewer:  Melvin L. Tobias Review #: CR123130
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