Get Smart

Good reference is essential to any business. If you need fast answers to important questions, digging through dusty almanacs won’t do any good. And if you are writing—whether to a client or colleague—what you say needs to be sharp and correct; good resources can add charm to your words.

My local public library understands this. The institution recently installed a fast PC with 4 CD-ROMs to provide a digital encyclopedia, dictionary, and atlas for townsfolk. The setup is popular with school kids. If they can use digital resources for homework, why shouldn’t you? 

There are quite a few reference CDs available, but three stand out from all others: Corel’s Office Companion, Compton’s Reference Collection, and Microsoft’s Bookshelf.

Office Companion is the more unusual of the products, looking to be a one-stop solution to many office needs. Its eclectic mix includes: screen capture, flowcharting, and clip art (15,000 images) modules; a fax package; a Web browser and the popular Eudora e-mail program; a personal information manager (PIM); a correspondence library of 700 letters; and a reference set that includes an almanac, dictionary, and Information Please’s outstanding 1995 Business Almanac. All this for about a $100.

Reference Collection is lean on extras but heavy on content. The CD contains 11 selections for business and general reference: The Elements of Style; The Elements of Business Writing; J.K. Lasser’s Legal and Corporation Forms for the Smaller Business; The Office Guide to Business Letters, Memos, and Reports; Resumes for Better Jobs; Compton’s Concise Encyclopedia; The New York Public Library Desk Reference; The Macmillian Dictionary of Quotations; Webster’s New World Dictionary; Webster’s New World Thesaurus; Compton’s World Atlas.

Bookshelf only offers nine titles, but they are good ones: The American Heritage Dictionary; The Original Roget’s Thesaurus; The World Almanac and Book of Facts; The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia; The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations; The People’s Chronology; Concise Encarta 96 World Atlas; and The National Five-Digit ZIP Code and Post Office Directory, and, new this year, Internet Directory 96.

Deciding which CD is best has a lot to do with your needs. Windows 95/NT users only have two choices: Bookshelf and Reference Collection. Office Companion does not work well under the newer Windows, and Corel has no plans to update the product. This is too bad, because Office Companion is quite handy. Need a fax program? Why pay for just the one software package when you can get it and lots of extras? How about some clip art? Or a flowcharting package? Corel’s unusual product packs just too much to ignore—and all of the modules are fairly decent, too. (Well, the PIM is a bit cheesy-looking.) But the correspondence library—dynamite if you are not a wordsmith—and the 1995 Business Almanac makes Office Companion worth considering for Windows 3.1 users.

Reference Collection, on the other hand, is not looking to solve your faxing problems or spice up your letterhead with cool graphics. Compton’s reference set is strictly information oriented—and along two lines: the office and home. The product’s Business Center is an outstanding resource. The CD puts over 200 legal forms and 50 sample letters at your disposal. It’s hard to beat Office Companion’s assortment of 700 letters, but Reference Collection’s high-quality forms and ease of use make up for this shortcoming. No other CD of this kind offers resources to help put finesse in your business writing. The general information content is quite good, too, and should not be sloughed off.

Bookshelf has a more general reference orientation that is great, but looses some shine next to Compton’s CD. However, MS Office 95/97 users may like Bookshelf better. The dictionary and zip code finder, for example, can both be launched from with Word or Excel—a real convenience. You can check definitions or zip codes on the fly. And its addition of an almanac and atlas outdistance Reference Collection for volume of information provided. Otherwise, the two products are fairly similar.

So which should you choose? Bookshelf and Reference Collection are better buys, costing less than $60 on the street and working well under Windows 95/NT. Microsoft also offers a Works/Bookshelf combo for under $75—a real bargain. Windows 3.1 users on a tight budget might consider Office Companion for the sheer number of products it packs. Between Compton’s and Microsoft’s selections, it’s neck and neck. For better business resources, go with Reference Collection. For great integration with Word or Excel and a more complete information set, try Bookshelf.

Photo Credit: The City Of Toronto

Editors Note: On July 27, 2017, this post was recovered, using Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of my first website, at strangely called: “Blue Sky, Business, and the Maine Outback”. What was I thinking?