CD-ROM Review (1991)


Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0028. Sunday, 12 May 1991.

From:         Tzvee Zahavy  <MAIC@VM1.SPCS.UMN.EDU>
Subject:      Library of the Future
Date:         Sun 28 Apr 1991

The attached is a review of a fine CD-ROM collection. I have seen this in packages of CD-ROMs at a more reasonable cost. Many Humanist subscribers may wish to consider resources like this for themselves or their libraries.

CD-ROM Review

Library of the Future (c) Series


by Tzvee Zahavy

Are you short on space in your bookshelves but still want to own 300 great works of Western culture? Would you like instant access to any word or phrase in Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, the Koran or the Canterbury Tales? With Library of the Future you can bring a general library into the home or school on a single compact disc. You will also get a practical search program allowing you quick access to the text of these varied works.

To use Library of the Future one must have as a minimum configuration an IBM-PC, AT or PS/2 (or compatible) with 640K of memory and a CD-ROM drive installed. I tested these programs on a Toshiba 3201A drive attached to a PS/2 model 60.

Library of the Future permits you to browse and read through the books in its library-base by title or to select authors from a list and peruse those works. You can also search for words and phrases in all the books on the disc or you may set criteria for the exploration. You may select a time epoch by centuries, e.g., 1869 to the present, or eras, e.g., the Renaissance (1313-1576). You may explore works by place, either by country or by continent, and by category, such as literature, biology/medicine, or drama.

A successful search retrieves "hits" that one may access by entering the "Title" area of the program and look through book-by- book. After opening a book, you may press the plus-key to proceed through to each successive occurrence of the word or phrase you sought. If you wish, you may print or save to a disk file a citation and twenty or so lines of surrounding text. Each saved reference has a three-line header indicating that it comes from the Library of the Future, giving the title and author of the source and providing the screen number of the e-text edition for future reference.

Page numbers are of little relevance in these e-texts. Students will feel justified in using the native reference system of these materials. Accordingly, as a professor, I wondered what I will do when I receive a term paper that indicates a citation comes from, for instance, Epictetus, Discourses, screen 78. An average teacher probably will find it confusing and hard to accept the style of a reference as it appears in the periodic notations within these texts, as for example to the "Koran {CHAPTER_II|THE_HEIFER ^paragraph 15}," or "{BOOK_I ^line 100}" of the Aeneid.

The books included here form more of a general sampler of materials than a single definitive inventory of great books. In fact, the propriety of defining the canon is one of the most heated debates in the contemporary academic world. The appearance of new fixed collections of literature, such as Library of the Future, will undoubtedly contribute to another round in the scholarly debate.

I spoke to Bill Hustwit at the publisher, the World Library about this. He explained that the aim of the package was to provide a consumer with a general library. He acknowledged that one criterion for inclusion of works was that they be in the public domain. I told him I could understand selection of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Kant, Darwin, Dickens, Marx, Milton, Tolstoy and Cervantes. When I asked about the inclusion in this austere assembly of the complete Sherlock Holmes, he admitted it was there because of a partiality he personally had to the work.

This release clearly is a first edition and a good one. Features will surely be added in subsequent releases. One example of this is the presence at various points in several books of the notice, "Press V for illustration." Unfortunately when you dutifully press V the screen displays the remark, "Graphics function is not implemented in this version. Please send in your registration card to be notified of future availability of graphics." In our conversation, World Library's Hustwit promised a second edition soon with illustrations and a third edition in the near future with 1000 works in the library-base.

Review Data Version: First Edition Company: World Library Inc. 12894 Haster Street Garden Grove, CA 92640 List Price: $695.00 Hardware/ system requirements: IBM PC, AT or PS/2 or compatible with 640K memory.

Positive features: Extensive general library of classic works. Simple and straightforward to install and use. Accurate and error- free. Easy to print or save to disk individual references.

Negative features: Rudimentary search engine with few advanced features. Incomplete bibliography of references to original editions. Search criteria cannot be saved. Complete set of hits can be saved or printed only one-at-a-time.

Summary: Library of the Future is a valuable asset especially for the general household or elementary and secondary schools. It allows searches of over 300 classic works of literature, philosophy, religion and science. The disc is a great introduction to CD-ROM technology and its capabilities for students and for the general public. Advanced scholars may prefer more capabilities in a search program and better documentation of sources. This collection lacks a bibliography specifying the original editions on which the e-texts are based. Nevertheless academic experts too will find much of utility here.

Textbase and Capacity (nearly 200 megabytes)

450 titles from 300 works of literature. Authors from Aeschylus and Augustine to Voltaire and Whitman. Titles, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Dates of the works, from 2500 B.C. to the present. Places represented, from Carthage and China to Spain and the U.S.A.

Compatibility of Output

Each hit or screen can be dumped to a printer or to an ascii file. Most word processors can import such files. Once you open a file, the program asks if you wish to append subsequent saves to the same file.

Search/ retrieval abilities

The search engine is rudimentary. Boolean operators AND and OR can be used. You cannot exclude words from the search with a NOT option. That would be a valuable addition to the next release of the program. Exact phrase searches and proximity searches of words can be done. Wild cards for single letters or for unspecified suffixes are permitted. The entry screen for search strings has quirks. You can backspace to correct errors in entries but you cannot use the delete or back arrow key. Pressing F3 allows you to go back and retype or delete a line on the screen.

Once you complete the search screen information you must exit that screen and go back to the Title screen to initiate the search. This is hardly intuitive. I would prefer here enabling use of a hot-key, such as one of the function keys, to initiate the search immediately. Through separate screens you can designate fields to be searched. Thus in one screen you can limit the search by author. In another screen you can delimit the time period, the place, and the category of the works to be searched.

The hits are returned in context allowing you to scroll through the text as you examine the results. The drawback of this method is that it takes more time to wade through extraneous retrievals, than if the program merely returned an index of hits. The text screen lines up the works in which there are items retrieved and tells you how many works it has called up. It does not tell you how many hits it called up leaving you with a possibly big job of leafing through ("screening through"?) many dozens of occurrences in a single work.

You cannot save or print all occurrences at once. It is rather tedious to go through and save or print each one. After exiting the retrieval screen you lose all criteria you set and must start over. Another valuable hot-key to be considered for adding to the next version would allow you to jump back and reset criteria after looking cursorily at the results or to save your search criteria for another time.

Documentation/ Help facilities

The manual that accompanies the program has two sections. The first 19 pages is a user guide to the functions of the program. The second section gives 35 pages of synopses of the library-base entries. These are not the most helpful summaries, viz.,

Dickens, Charles (1812-1870)
English novelist who drew on his experiences as a poor child to produce extremely realistic stories. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a novel showing London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.

Simple on-line help is available in the program through a function key.

Learning curve

It should not take the average high school student long to learn how to use the program to browse through books or how to perform simple searches. Addition of an overview guide on a card or a simple tutorial might help orient new users to the overall strategies and contents of the program.

Efficiency for users

I would be confident to make this disc available to the public on a library work-station. It is friendly enough to users of various levels.

Errors: fallibility and consequences

The program traps errors well. I could not make it hang-up or crash, nor could I accidentally exit the program without calling up a warning screen.

Product support

The product comes with a toll-free number. When I called, the company answered on the first ring and promptly connected me to a knowledgeable party to answer all my questions. The warranty is 90 days, replace or refund. Update policy is not specified.

Value

Should you wait for a future release or buy this package now? This currently is a smooth and attractive product. By all means buy this, if you can afford the steep initial investment and want or need the library and the search capabilities it affords. I see Library of the Future as a wonderful tool for literate homes and a highly desirable item for secondary school and even college libraries. In the final analysis I am tempted to say don't wait for the future to get this compact electronic library of masterpieces.

-----------

Tzvee Zahavy is professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is author of numerous books and articles on the Talmud and on History of Judaism. He also is primary author of the instructional language software, "Milim: Vocabulary Drill for Foreign Language Instruction," published by IBM's Wiscware, of "MILIM-Windows" and "Verbs" published by Exceller Software, and he is co-author of the Windows multi- language shell system, "Sentences," also published by Exceller Software.

***************************************************************
Bitnet: MAIC@UMINN1        Internet: MAIC@VM1.SPCS.UMN.EDU
Land-Mail: University of Minnesota, Dept. of Classical and Near
Eastern Studies, 316 Folwell Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55455