The complete National Geographic available on CD-ROM

Personal Computers

October 27, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

UNTIL NOW, back issues of National Geographic inevitably called to mind doctors' waiting rooms and musty storage boxes. But soon those stacks moldering beneath the cobwebs in America's garages and basements may be destined for recycling bins. The Complete National Geographic (for Windows or Macintosh, from Mindscape Inc., at about $200), a collection of 30 CD-ROMs, contains a digitized version of every page of the magazine from the first issue in 1888 through the December 1996 edition.

Collectors may not want to chuck their yellow-spined treasures just yet. The CD-ROM collection omits all the large map supplements (though it includes a large world map on paper), and its second-rate reproduction quality and software cry out for improvement.

Nonetheless, the sheer volume of content here makes browsing addictive. A brief history of the organization and the magazine would have been welcome, but the distinctive and strange mixture that made the Geographic a household word is here, with all its upbeat and sometimes self-parodic prose and photographs both hackneyed and stunning.

"Changing Berlin," an arch 1937 travelogue, features swastika-laden pictures of events such as Hitler's birthday parade and words about Hitler Youth "singing in accurately pitched, youthful treble that moving modern national song, the 'Horst Wessel Lied.' " But the story that follows includes what the magazine bills as "the first natural color photograph of an eclipse ever reproduced," one of the many fruits of National Geographic expeditions.

In a stroke of genius, the disks contain all the magazine's advertising pages, from patent remedies to PCs and a colorfully inedible 1946 food sculpture headlined " 'Ah'-inspiring Spam 'n' limas."

As historical artifacts of the changing fashions of consumption, persuasion and propaganda, the ads will be a welcome resource for cultural historians, not to mention artists and graphic designers who enjoy taking visual cues from the past.

The software's design tries hard, but does not quite manage, to make the content unusable. In the first of many annoyances, finishing the installation program merely lets you invoke it again to "register" the disks for use. My experience suggests that unless you want the nuisance of registering each disk separately, you must use the very first disk to do the job at one go. The manual and on-screen messages incorrectly suggest otherwise.

The collection's 30 disks are organized sensibly in boxes that correspond to each decade and fit into a larger slipcase. If you want to see everything on a particular subject, much disk swapping is required, but at least the global search index is included on every disk.

The search engine lets you perform complex searches through either the editorial content or the ads, but not both at once. Regrettably, the index is limited to titles and a few key descriptive words for each article and picture caption rather than including the full text, making it useless for sniffing out obscure internal references in odd places.

The software also lets you browse by starting with the covers and tables of contents. But it always displays pages side by side, two at a time. At the lower of two possible magnifications, you can see all of both pages, but you cannot read type smaller than headlines. Higher screen resolutions make things worse, because the pages fill smaller portions of the screen.

The higher zoom level lets you read the text, except for some tiny type in advertisements; because you can maximize this window, higher screen resolutions let you display more of a page at once. But there is no mode that lets you simply read an article continuously; the "page down' and "page up" keys are oblivious to your keystrokes, and the "next page" or "previous page" buttons on the screen work inconsistently. Mouse fatigue sets in as you end up "pushing" pages around the screen.

Text can be hard to read, because it is rendered fuzzily, with color blotches, speckles and uneven background tones instead of with crisp black on white. Photos do fare somewhat better, but the disk has been produced in 256-color palettes that compromise reproduction quality.

You can print pages directly from the program, complete with a copyright notice on each one, but their blurriness can be a problem. Fortunately, each page is stored as a standard JPEG file in a directory structure that is easy to decode, so you can load it into image-editing software and perform digital sharpening and other touch-ups before you print.

This package's fascinating contents ultimately overcome its technical flaws. The historical perspective sheds light on such issues as the ways technology changes itself without really changing us. In this age of portable electronic overwork, I was stunned to see an ad depicting a man using a portable typewriter at his train seat. According to the copy, "Executives whose hours are priceless, the kind of men who travel on excess-fare trains, make riding time writing time with the aid of Corona," a 6-pound "personal writing machine" mounted on its own little tripod.

"Twentieth-century men carry Corona," says the headline. It ran in April 1917.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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