Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 11: November 2010

The CD-ROM Project

From Print to CD

There’s a common theme for the three titles this time around: Converting print to CD-ROM, presumably adding value in the process.

The first “disc” this time around is the biggest box in my stack of CD-ROMs: a yellow 9"x9"x6.5" box containing ten inner boxes and a total of 32 CD-ROMs, plus an instruction book (and a 33rd CD mailed later, in a case designed to be added to the tenth box). In my March 1998 Library Hi Tech News review, I called it “the most seriously flawed product I’ve ever given an excellent rating.”

The Complete National Geographic

One box per decade, three or four CD-ROMs per box. It’s not quite complete—they left out all those glorious wall-size supplemental maps—but it does include all the covers, all the photos, all the text and, significantly, all the ads.

Back then, I said the collection was at “an extremely low price” and that I couldn’t imagine a school library that wouldn’t benefit from a copy—“and for that matter, most public and academic libraries should have this set as well.” That extremely low price? $199 retail, $140 street price.

Before I reviewed this, I’d seen list posts from librarians saying they’d tried to use the set recently and it didn’t work on their computers. When I looked at the system requirements, I was discouraged: Windows 3.1 or 95 (or Macintosh). Mindscape distributed the product, and recent experiences with Mindscape discs of that era have been mixed. But hey, it wouldn’t hurt to try.

It Works—At Least Mostly

This is an unusual set in that you can install it from any of the CD-ROMs and register the set as a whole from any CD-ROM in the first box (registration isn’t necessary). The install required 10MB disk space or, if you wanted searches to run with any speed, 100MB disc space (the extra 90MB for the index). That reduces the storage capacity of each disc—it appears that disc-specific content runs about 500MB per CD.

Following Windows 95 instructions (or, rather, opening Explorer and double-clicking on Setup.Exe), the installation routine ran smoothly. I chose not to attempt to install 16-bit QuickTime: As far as I know, the only videos are in the startup intro, mostly ads and promotions and irrelevant to the content. I also chose not to install a link to online content or register the set.

With installation complete—the install routine grumped about my decision not to install QT, but didn’t fail—the set started right up. Searches work, prompts to change CDs work, page displays work, printing works.

I didn’t have to invoke compatibility settings. Things worked as well now as they did back in 1998—for good and for bad. Note that, except for the intro, there is no sound or video anywhere on this set but, quoting from my 1998 review, “Then again, how many video clips and sound samples did you encounter in National Geographic?”

The Good

Assuming you don’t have shelves groaning with the full set of print magazines, and maybe even if you do, this set had a lot to recommend it. You could browse by cover and table of contents, but you could also search articles, pictures and ads with a moderately sophisticated search engine. The inclusion of ads in the search base make this set a valuable resource for some forms of social history—seeing how things were advertised in a given era to a presumably desirable demographic, National Geographic subscribers.

It’s not full text—while indexing seems fairly deep, it’s all added terms. Back in 1998, I was fascinated by some early searches—for example, the 120 ads for “computers” go back as far as 1970.

And the pictures are great.

The Less Good

There are three problems here: One very much present in the original set, two more a factor of changing times.

The original problem becomes obvious if you know math. The set contains more than 190,000 pages, all scanned as color images. Each page results in a JPEG image from less than 50kB to around 80kB; that means compression ratios of 90:1 to 250:1 assuming 300dpi scans, which may not be a safe assumption.

The result? Photos look good—after all, JPEG is ideal for color photography. Quoting myself: “The pictures are drop-dead gorgeous, even if some tiny details may be obscured.” As for article text and pages mixing photos and text, well… JPEG isn’t really designed for text, and the results are less than wonderful. Some early issues are difficult to read and some pages with pictures and italic text may be wholly unreadable. My printed sample, this time around, is readable hard on the eyes—it’s about what you’d expect from heavily-compressed JPEGs of text pages.

I think I found the on-screen text a little easier to read than last time around, and that’s probably because of improved displays and maybe better smoothing algorithms.

The next problem was always there but wasn’t as bizarre in 1997. Namely, the primary interface comes up as a proper window—but at a fixed 640x480 resolution, with the maximize button grayed out (and no ability to use handles to change size). Remember 640x480? Know just how small that looks on a contemporary 1280x1024 display? It’s a little box, appearing smaller than it really is.

If you use the zoom control, the page or two-page spread currently being displayed does use more of the screen. I could get it to use 1280x800 but not 1280x1024. I couldn’t get the zoomed display to stay on my preferred screen when changing pages, but that’s unlikely to be an issue for most library uses. When you’re looking at pictures or trying to read articles, the display’s pretty good; when you’re searching, not so much—the small box comes back. Oh, by the way, you have to exit Zoom mode to print: the only controls in Zoom mode are page controls and, fortunately, rotation controls (since some maps are printed sideways).

The other problem (or pair of problems) is a factor of changing times. It seems clunky to have to keep changing CD-ROMs (and with a notebook computer, it is clunky and noisy as well). And these days the lack of a full-text index also seems clunky: How quickly we grow spoiled.

Still, what’s here is quite good. I gave it a 93 (Excellent) back then. “The producers weren’t able to overcome the real limitations of digital imaging techniques,” but what they did was pretty remarkable for 1997.

Contemporary Alternatives

You can still buy a version of the CD-ROM set, apparently using a separate installation CD and costing $85 new, $18 and up used. It’s from Riverdeep, which seems to have ended up with Learning Company assets. If I can believe the Amazon reviews (always a big If), the last release screws up several other things. I’d avoid it.

You’ve probably seen ads for the more plausible current version: A six-DVD set that uses PDF rather than JPEG and costs $50 from Amazon at this writing. It also includes another decade, covering 1888 through 2008 (another newer version may be out), and includes some of the supplementary maps and a bonus DVD with videos on National Geographic Society and the like. I haven’t seen or used the new product. It’s clearly a much slicker interface. I’ve heard and read mixed reviews on the quality of the search engine and the page images. It does appear that you can download the entire set to hard disk, which would make the collection a lot easier to use.

Or, for that matter, you can buy the whole thing on a 160GB external USB hard disk directly from National Geographic, but that will run $200. (The society also sells the 6-DVD-ROM edition for $70, in a version that includes 2009 issues and a book.) It’s the same content as the DVD-ROM edition but already on hard disk, with room for some updates and 100GB set aside for your own data.

Again, I haven’t tried any of the newer versions and can’t speak to their quality. If I felt the desire for a complete set of National Geographic Magazine, I’d probably spring for the DVD-ROM. By the way, you may also find one or two pre-1923 issues in Google Books. If you do, the image quality is likely to be much better than what I saw on the CD-ROMs, but you’ll be dealing with a handful of issues at best.

Octavo CD-ROM Editions

I received four (or more) review copies of Octavo CD-ROM editions and reviewed two of them—Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Librari dell’Architec­tura (1570) and Giovanni Battista Bracelli’s Bizzarie di Varie Figure (1624) in the final “CD-ROM Corner,” in EContent 23:6 (December 2000). I probably gave away the other CD-ROMs but still have Domenico Fontana’s Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano (1590)—which I must have received in 2002, since that’s the date on the license. As you can probably guess, the book is about the transportation of the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square—not the original transportation from Egypt to Rome (in 37AD), but the movement of a 340-ton object 260 yards in 1585.

I rated the Octavo items “very good” in 2000, but wondered “just how large the market is” for these extremely high-quality scans of rare books from LC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Division, “particularly given the reluctance of so many academic libraries to deal with CD-ROM media.”

I’m not sure how much the Fontana sold for, but the others sold for $25 to $45. They’re superb reproductions of rare books, with translations and scholarly notes included. The actual scans are at roughly 300dpi, full color and clearly done with great care; the CD-ROM presents book pages at 144dpi. (The translation and other modern material are nicely typeset.) The whole thing is one big PDF—151MB in this case. The translation is searchable. The original is not, since it’s just a set of page images—but there are hyperlinks from the translation. Some Octavo editions apparently have “live” text behind the scanned pages.

From what I could see under Windows 7 (where Autorun brings up Explorer), there’s no installation problem because there’s no installation—you open the PDF directly from the disc or copy it to hard disk for faster operation. The user interface is Adobe Reader itself.

Contemporary Availability

Amazon still sells this item, for $30. shows nine holding libraries and shows 62 Octavo titles in all, with holdings ranging as high as 2,286 (for The works now newly imprinted, otherwise known as the Kelmscott Chaucer). In the first 20 items in Worldcat, I see at least three with more than a thousand holdings, so it appears that some Octavo CD-ROMs are widely held. If your library has any of these Octavo special editions, they should work at least as well now as they did back then. And, after all, how else would your library obtain a high-quality copy of Areopagitica (1644) or Isaac Newton’s Opticks in its original edition or Palladio’s 1570 architectural treatise (held by 1,988 Worldcat libraries)?

Amazon shows 45 Octavo CD-ROMs as currently available, at prices ranging from $20 to $80 (for the Gutenberg Bible) and release dates as recent as 2005. Octavo itself is still around, or at least it has a website at (although most pages are only updated to 2005). That site shows a bundle of “each Octavo edition published to date,” which totals 45 titles; the price for the whole set is $1,311. There are also smaller bundles, usually representing a modest discount from buying individual CD-ROMs.

Here’s where it gets interesting (thanks to Wikipedia’s brief article): Rare Book Room ( has some 400 books digitized by Octavo—and it’s a free site, an “education site intended to allow the visitor to examine and read some of the great books of the world.” All items are available in a reading interface that shows thumbnails of each spread and a modest reproduction of a given spread—but can be enlarged to be more than large enough for reading or careful examination. Some items have accompanying PDF files offering notes on the edition. (Zoom seems to operate in several steps, by clicking on a spread. It appears that you can zoom in at least as far as on the CD-ROMs, maybe further.)

This is quite an extraordinary gift from Octavo, although the Rare Book Room versions don’t include translations and extensive scholarly notes. That leaves a market for the CD-ROMs.

In case you’re wondering, this book is not available in Google Books, at least not when I checked in late September 2010—and, even if it was, I doubt that the scan would be as careful and high quality as the Octavo product.

I was always impressed with the CD-ROMs, even as I felt they might be awfully obscure. But 2,000+ copies of a CD-ROM is pretty good, and the Rare Book Room makes these treasures available to everybody, albeit without the translations and other ancillary materials. Good stuff.

Joy of Cooking

It seems that I never reviewed this 1998 CD, and I have it as a plain CD in an ordinary jewelcase, so it might have been part of a 10-pak.

Installation and Operation

Autorun does nothing at all—inspecting autorun.inf, it appears that it’s circular: It tells Autorun to run Autorun. Sigh. Doubleclicking on Setup.exe does work, with a typical InstallShield setup copying almost 50MB to hard disk. It then says it needs to restart Windows. So, let’s see.

It works—there’s a “Joy” icon and double-clicking it brings up a full-screen, unmovable, non-resizable window with the name, but also a little dialog box that says you need to insert the CD-ROM and “try again.” You should never have to exit a program, insert the CD-ROM and then restart the program. Even after copying 50MB from a disc that only has 150MB total, you need the CD-ROM to use it.

Doing that, I get the same non-resizable, unmovable window, but with a menu. Playing with the menu, I found little to suggest significant added value over the print book and a lot to suggest the print classic is better. Joy of Cooking, for many of us, is more about “cooking facts” and food facts and techniques than about recipes as such. The reading pane on the CD-ROM makes reading even short essays much clunkier, even if you like the (unchangeable) boring typeface: The book wins in this regard.

Recipes? Maybe you can search by ingredient, but the recipe presentation is also harder to use than the print book. And while a bunch’o’recipes on CD-ROM might have been hot stuff in 1998, it’s badly superseded in 2010 by—you got it—the web.

I’m guessing I wasn’t enthralled back then. Now? I uninstalled it.

Contemporary Alternatives

If you’re so inclined, you can buy a newer CD-ROM version (Joy of Cooking 2.0) for $12 or so (or, under another listing, $207!). It dates from 2002. I’m not sure why you would. Apparently there’s still no nutritional analysis or anything that would make this a contemporary computer product.

If you like the style of Joy, you might go to the joy (, run by the Joy of Cooking Trust. It has a variety of tips, techniques and recipes and explains the timeline of the book—including the decade during which it was “publisher driven” before returning to “JOY style” in 2006.

I suspect most folks will stick with sites like Epicurious (more than 100,000 recipes from several magazines) and many other online recipe sites. There have been (and no doubt still are) other CD-ROMs and, probably, DVD-ROMs devoted to cooking and recipes, most of them with things like preparation videos and nutritional analysis. In the end, the Joy CD-ROM didn’t do enough to make it better than the book.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 11, Whole # 134, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and published by Walt Crawford.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2010 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.