On a whim, I decided to pit MSN’s online version of the Encarta “encyclopedia” (part of MSN Learning and Research) against the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia available through Bartleby. The differences couldn’t be more stark.
A search for “Abelard and Heloise” on MSN turned up a few results, most accessible only to MSN subscribers. But the first result, this page, is free to all. It’s got a pretty painting of the two lovers (no information about the painting or its artist is given) and a one-paragraph, bowdlerized version of the story: “The 12th-century scholar Peter Abelard was one of the most famous theologians and philosophers of his time. In 1117 he began tutoring Héloïse, the niece of a French cleric. Abelard and Héloïse soon became secret lovers, but were forced to separate after being discovered by Héloïse’s uncle. The two lovers retired to monasteries, and although they kept in touch by writing, they did not see each other again.”
In the Columbia entry, there’s no pretty picture (and a pop-up ad appears in front of the page), but there are six meaty paragraphs with interesting information about Abelard’s dates, his theology and philosophy, his importance in the rebirth of Aristotelian methods leading up to Aquinas, and his significance as a teacher. But the biography is juicier too, telling more of the story including Abelard’s abduction of Héloïse and his subsequent castration by Héloïse’s uncle. There’s also a short bibliography listing three books you can read to learn more. And that’s just the first of several search results.
The amazing thing is that MSN calls its reference section “Learning and Research” — as if you could learn anything, or do any research, there. Bartleby, on the other hand, rules. It’s got not just the encyclopedia but also a dictionary, thesauri, Gray’s Anatomy, various quotation references, the Bible, Shakespeare, and lots and lots of books. The site is fast and easy to use, and all of its pages have short, simple URLs. I can’t figure out how the good folks at Bartleby have kept their site going for so long without charging access or subscription fees, but bravo for them.