The CD-ROM Project
Sometimes They Just Don’t Work
Six CD-ROMs from two companies, all related to leadership, reviewed at two different times (the first group review was delayed). I’m hoping and expecting to see some better results next time around—but this time, I’m afraid there’s very little good news.
This review covers four titles, all from 1998: Women Leaders: Rulers throughout History; Founding Leaders: Shapers of Modern Nations; Current Leaders: Rulers of Nations in the 1990s; and American Leaders: American Political Leaders, American Social Leaders, American Cultural Leaders. I installed and tested Women Leaders; I’m fairly confident that my comments on it apply to all four discs, since they’re all basically the same software with different resources.
That I reviewed these four CDs (and two ABC-CLIO ResourceLink CDs) at all is curious, as they were primarily intended for classroom use. So, for example, there are single-copy prices ($49 each for three of these, $129 for the fourth—which includes the equivalent of three titles), five-copy prices (no more than half as much as five single copies) and unlimited-use network prices.
When I originally reviewed these (in the February/March 1999 Database Magazine), I gave most of them low “excellent” ratings and the American Leaders title a “very good” rating. None of the four supports AutoPlay properly for installation or operation; installing several discs means installing “the same large files” repeatedly (“large” is a relative term—the entire installation for Women Leaders is about 10MB in 641 files); the forced install of ActiveX took a long time to check components back then. Also, the programs would only run at 640x480.
Otherwise, I thought these were “fine products for their intended audience” and might work well in public libraries. They weren’t flashy (text and pictures), but they had a lot of good brief biographies accessible through several different paths, including timeline and searches (even text searches).
American Leaders includes 1,205 biographies totaling roughly a million words, “the equivalent of a 1,000-page biographical encyclopedia.” Biographies include some hyperlinks to maps, glossary items and other biographies and end with brief bibliographies. There are tools for printing and export and a notebook tool. Text is sans serif on a patterned background, impeding readability, but in general I thought these worked well.
As for the other three discs, Founding Leaders includes 304 biographies totaling some 300,000 words; Current Leaders includes 514 biographies totaling 250,000 words; and Women Leaders includes 380 brief biographies totaling some 140,000 words. That disc also has a few overviews. I liked these three better because they were more focused.
The install—done by double-clicking on Setup.exe on the CD-ROM—was fairly typical and took very little time.
Then I clicked on the program name in Start…and watched as my primary screen turned black or dark gray, with the taskbar nowhere to be seen. My secondary screen was also blank. The cursor worked just fine, and changed to a little hand in some areas of the screen, but nothing seemed to happen if I clicked on one of those invisible areas.
Right-clicking on my secondary display brought back the taskbar. From there, I could right-click on the program’s icon and apply compatibility settings. I did that, choosing XP compatibility, 640x480 resolution and 256 colors (since that’s what the user manual calls for). I can say that a novice user would be pretty freaked out at this point—especially with the taskbar gone (if it’s in Autohide mode) and nothing on the display.
Once I added compatibility settings, it worked. Sort of.
At first, the primary screen was filled with ghastly versions of color graphics, “dotty” as all get-out but just good enough to see the control areas—and clicking on stuff finally got me to a biography. Within the biography, text was fine (sans and dull, but readable), while everything else was a mess. Then, for reasons I still don’t quite understand (maybe compatibility settings work in phases?), the screen flashed again and became a perfectly acceptable oversize VGA display—still 640x480, 256 colors, with no window controls and no taskbar (and certainly no ability to move the fixed window), but it looked fine.
Exiting and restarting yielded erratic results: Sometimes the ghastly version, sometimes the good if crude version. I also noticed that navigation through the system now seemed unintuitive—you could get places, but not necessarily along “natural” paths.
In practice, I can’t imagine using this disc for long. It’s too disruptive on a modern computer (these four are Windows-only but don’t run in contemporary windows—and how many people still use 8-bit color or 640x480 displays?) and feels clunky by contemporary standards. I didn’t try the other three, but since they all behaved identically in 1999, I doubt there would be significant differences now…except that biographies were considerably longer in the others.
Too bad, in a way. Women Leaders offers quite a list of women who were, at some level, rulers—from Adelaide of Salona through Begum Khaleda Zia (although the list actually runs from Ada through Zoë).
I only checked for Women Leaders. It’s not available, and it seems unlikely that the others are. This is a case where you’d expect online resources to provide far better alternatives, presumably for free.
Do they? Let’s stick with women leaders, an area that’s probably not covered as well as it should be. Both Bing and Google show www.guide2womenleaders.com as the first plausible general resource for the phrase “women leaders.” That site seems to be a personal effort of Martin K.I Christensen, a Danish journalist, editor and PR person who is interested in women as leaders. The site does a credible job, although the biographies are even briefer than on the CD-ROM. Looking at the timelines, this site appears to have more women than the CD-ROM. I made no attempt to compare the two, although some names certainly appear on both lists. In fact, this site is fairly impressive, including not only “rulers” but also presidential candidates and other important women in politics and religion.
For longer biographies, the obvious free online resource is Wikipedia. I checked four women leaders who had brief but useful biographies on the CD-ROM: Æthelflæd, Hinematioro, Tiy, and Adelaide of Salona.
I came up empty on Hinematioro: Apparently she was either not important enough for Wikipedia or appears under another name with no cross-reference. There’s not much of a listing in guide2womenleaders (“17??/18?? Paramount Chieftainess Hinematioro of the Ngati Porou Tribe” in the page on New Zealand/Aotearoa leaders), but she does appear.
The others do better. Æthelflæd’s biography is probably comparable in length to that on the CD-ROM but has better links and bibliography. Tiy—appearing as Tiye—has what I suspect is a longer and better biography, with more photos and many more links. Adelaide of Salona—appearing as Adelaide del Vasto—has a biography that’s probably similar to the CD-ROM, with no photo, but does have more links and sources.
All in all, I’d say the combination of guide2womenleaders and Wikipedia is a more useful contemporary resource—and the price is right. For the other discs, I suspect there are combinations of resources that serve the same needs. These CD-ROMs would probably be well past their useful life…even if they worked a little better.
Worldcat.org shows 46 libraries holding Women Leaders: Rulers Throughout History and 26 or fewer for each of the other titles. I suppose those copies could potentially be useful, but only with some difficulty.
I reviewed these two Mentorom CD-ROMs (along with a couple of others) in the October/November 1997 Database Magazine, giving them a high “Very Good” score of 89. The two, sold at the time as a $30 package, are American Presidents: Shaping Modern America and American Presidents: The Cold War. Each one is, in essence, a half-hour documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite—but with a “research mode” that links to lots of primary materials and historical summaries, with most material from presidential libraries and NARA. The CD-ROMs lacked bibliographies and suggestions for further reading, and Shaping Modern America covered too much ground for much dept—but I thought they were a wonderful bargain and worthwhile as additions to American history collections, “providing a kind of history that enriches (but does not replace) books.” Do they still have any value 14 years later?
The booklet—which combines installation and overview with ads for other Mentorom title—says you need a 486 with 8MB RAM, 3MB hard disk space, Windows 95 or Windows 3.1—and either an MPEG card (remember MPEG cards?) or Active Movie software. The CD-Rom comes with “a free copy of the Web browser Internet Explorer v.3.0” and, of course, Video for Windows if you have Windows 3.1. Will it even run on Windows 7?
No. Installation bombs out almost immediately with a mysterious error message—some obscure file with nothing to associate it with. Hmm. In the process, it managed to shut down a program I’d intended to leave running—without notice. Isn’t that special!
I could have pursued the issue, but chose not to. In 2011, frankly, a “half-screen” (320x480, probably) 15fps monaural documentary just isn’t going to excite anybody, especially not run full-screen.
Remarkably, there’s still a website for these CD-ROMs, copyright 1996 by International Thomson Multimedia and presumably not updated in many years. Ah, it must be 1996: a professional website has blinking red text as part of a centered-text paragraph. And various chunks of text have different colors, sometimes on a white background, sometimes on colored backgrounds—including a magnificent cluster, one part in grey-on-blue, one in black-on-red…and one, all underlined, in gold on purple. That third item (“Internet Hotlinks allow many records to link to World Wide Web sites containing related information”) should be a hotlink, since it’s all underlined…but it isn’t.
Otherwise a websearch for the product turns up a surprising variety of Russian sites and others like “American Corners Serbia”—and a community college site that appears to have a downloadable version of the video (I believe they also came out on VHS). It’s fair to say that this product has disappeared.
There’s no lack of web resources on presidents, and I suspect that many of these primary materials (and probably many, many more) are readily available. All things considered, I don’t regard the unworkability of these CD-ROMs as much of a failure.
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