Fast, inexpensive personal computers with large hard disks or CD-ROM drives have brought a whole new meaning to Casey Stengel's old phrase, "You can look it up."
Whether you're looking it up in a dictionary, a thesaurus, an atlas or even an encyclopedia, you can probably find a way to do it right from the computer screen, without the hassle of searching for the right volume on your bookshelf or thumbing through indexes.
While on-line reference works don't have the elegance, heft or occasionally the detail of their printed counterparts, they do offer many advantages.
First, they're available the instant you need them, so you're more likely to look something up than fudge it. Second, on-line reference works frequently offer compilations of information that isn't available in printed volumes, along with hypertext links and other ways of searching for information that make them far easier to use.
Just as important, they give you some way to insert the information you've retrieved directly into whatever document you're working on, without retyping.
An increasing number of reference titles are available on CD-ROM disks, which require a drive similar to the compact disk player that's hooked up to your stereo system.
A single CD-ROM disk can hold an entire encyclopedia, with room to spare.
Unfortunately, CD-ROM drives are still expensive, at $500 to $1,000, and they're relatively slow. I expect CD-ROMs to be standard equipment on personal computers within a few years. But for now, even if you don't have a CD-ROM, there's plenty of information available at your fingertips.
The U.S. Atlas and World Atlas from Software Toolworks, at $79.95 each, show a bit of what the future holds for people who need information they can put to work for them immediately.
The latest releases of these atlases for IBM-compatible computers run under the Microsoft Windows operating environment.
The main disadvantage of programs of this type is that they take up a lot of disk space, although the 4.5 megabytes that the U.S. Atlas occupies isn't much by Windows standards.
The U.S. Atlas program is intuitive to start with and ultimately simple enough that you can learn its advanced functions by fooling around with it.
The U.S. Atlas program greets you with a map of the United States and a strip of icons representing various tools on the left-hand side of the screen. Click your mouse cursor on any state, and up pops a map showing major cities, roads, rivers and other important features.
If the state has one of 28 large metropolitan areas, you can click on then zoom in. In the case of Baltimore, the metropolitan map stretches from Catonsville to Middle River, and from Lutherville to BWI Airport.
The program remembers the last 50 maps or charts you've looked at, so it's easy to switch back and forth between maps and other displays.
That's cute, but there are far better maps in books. The real power of this program is in the information that comes packed in its data bases.
If you're looking at a map of Maryland, you can click on an information icon and pop up a window full of statistics in 10 different categories: population, geography, health, agriculture, crime, economy, communications, travel, government and education. The information is compiled from 85 different government and private sources.
In a few seconds you can find out that Maryland has 325 physicians per 100,000 people (the highest ratio in the country), 163,000 Vietnam Veterans, 18.05 students per teacher in its public schools, 10 electoral votes and an average barley yield of 50 bushels per acre.
With another click, you can create a StatMap (known more precisely as a thematic map), showing the crime rate, number of housing units, percentage of Asian and Pacific islanders or any other statistic for each county.
You can create the same maps showing state-by-state comparisons, or quickly generate bar graphs showing the top or bottom 15 states in any category, or pick any 15 states from the list.
There are other bells and whistles, such as finding the distance between any two cities. You can also create notes for any map, cutting and pasting data from the information screens. The program remembers which notes are assigned to which map. Finally, you can print out any map, graph or notepad at will.
Unlike many DOS versions of reference works, which run into problems exchanging data with other programs, the Software Toolworks atlases take full advantage of Windows' ability to run multiple programs simultaneously and cut and paste data from one to another.
For example, I'm writing this column on a word processor in one window, with the Software Toolworks map of Maryland in the background and a notepad full of information about the state in a corner.
I can copy the map itself into any document that accepts Windows bit-mapped graphics (it's OK -- they want you to do that) or save it as a separate graphics file. The same goes for any graph I create.
I can also copy the text from the program's information windows. This kind of seamless exchange is one of the main reasons for using Windows, and it's good to see reference programs taking advantage of that capability.
The Software Toolworks atlas has its flaws. For example, I can get listings of the top or bottom 15 states in any information category, or pick any 15 states I want, but there's no way to get a list of all 50 states at once.
I found one obvious mistake in the data: Under some circumstances, the program confuses statistics for Baltimore and Baltimore County. There are some annoying inconsistencies in the way the program handles transitions from mapping to information features, and the colors the program selects for its maps can't be easily modified by the Windows Paintbrush program.
But overall, the atlases are well done and worth the money.
For information, contact The Software Toolworks, Inc., 60 Leveroni Court, Novato, CA 94949.