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

Selection from Cites & Insights 11, Number 6: June/July 2011

The CD-ROM Project

Some Work, Many Don’t

My wife, the wise person and actual librarian in our household, asked me the other day why I was doing this at all—since libraries surely aren’t buying new CD-ROM titles. I gave her a response similar to what I said back in July 2010 (Cites & Insights 10:8), and I think that’s still valid. Briefly, since libraries don’t automatically discard books from the late 1990s, and since many of these title CD-ROMs were “expanded books” in one way or another, I thought it would be worth seeing whether they still run on contemporary computers, whether they still seem worthwhile, what’s replaced them and so on—along with some notes from when I first reviewed them.

On the other hand…the first six CD-ROMs I tried out this month wouldn’t install at all. Period. In no case was this terribly surprising, but in some cases it was disappointing. After writing up earlier notes on three of them that had been quite interesting (if flawed) “virtual museums,” I realized I no longer had the heart to track down possible web alternatives and that, indeed, recounting how these titles used to work was mostly a history of things lost and a trifle depressing. Remembering when title CD-ROMs were touted as the Next Big Thing, possibly even replacing books, I will note this: Any book I purchased in 1995-1999 is still readable—but many title CD-ROMs purchased in that period are now entirely useless. [I was going to qualify “any book” with “except mass-market paperbacks”—but all the mass-market paperbacks I have from the mid-90s are entirely readable, as are ones that date back to 1965, cheap acid paper and all.]

Every CD-ROM I’ve kept around was fairly interesting. I didn’t hold onto the total turkeys. From now on, I’m likely to just note wholly-failed titles and, if it’s easy to determine, the minimum number of libraries holding those titles (as reflected in, maybe noting apparent direct replacements. Most space will go to the titles that still work, and I don’t think much more space will be devoted to this project at all. For this episode, covering ten CD-ROMs, the batting average is 200: Two titles worked, eight did not.

North American Birds

Full title: North American Birds with Roger Tory Peterson, version 1.1. When I reviewed this in the April/May 1997 DATABASE, I gave it a 94—a strong Excellent score. I called it a “charmer,” based on Roger Tory Peterson’s acclaimed field guides to North American birds. “If you’re a birdwatcher (birder) in North America and you have Windows, you probably already own this disc. If not, go buy it.” That’s a strong endorsement for a $50 item.

Why did I like it so much? Because it did things a printed field guide couldn’t do as well: Not only include fine drawings for more than 1,000 species (with notes on markings, range, and other categories) and photographs for some 700 of them, but also provide field recordings of bird songs and calls for 700 species. The disc also includes Peterson’s video commentary and some spoken commentaries, along with support materials. I wasn’t sure the disc would work as a circulating item: it’s something you’d want to refer to repeatedly (and even includes a tool to build a lifelist of sighted birds).

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In the illustration, the Field View brings up a full-screen photo; Range brings up a map of North America with summer, winter (none in this case) and year-round ranges shown along with notes on migration; Voice yields a good-quality field recording; Similar brings up a partial-screen graphic of the broader visual category (“Buteos” in this case), and the other five buttons yield pop-up text boxes on the topics noted. There’s a lot of information, both visual and textual, and it’s well-presented. (I chose this as one of three hawk varieties that frequent the property behind our house.)

Current installation and operation

System requirements that seemed a little ambitious in 1997—16MB of disk space and 16-bit color—are now trivial. The install isn’t quite automatic, but if you follow instructions, it works—although it may insist on overlaying existing ODBC files (and renaming existing files).

Not only does installation work, so does the disc—with a mildly annoying animated Houghton-Mifflin Interactive logo at startup and, the first time you use it, a video introduction from Peterson. Once or twice, I got an error message “Unable to switch palettes”—but it continued to run without incident, providing excellent color. (Did any PCs have 24-bit color in 1995?) The audio clips worked, the videos worked, the popups worked. Amazing.

One small irritant: While the operating window can be moved, it can’t be enlarged—it’s stuck at 640x480, which does seem small on a typical contemporary screen. I didn’t try online links. Otherwise, this is a product that continues to work as an extended book, doing things a book really can’t do. More than 130 libraries have copies of this CD-ROM; those copies should still be useful and worth using.

Contemporary alternatives

A version that may be somewhat newer (Amazon started selling it in 2002) is currently available, although it’s been discontinued by its publisher. The disc is also available in a 4-CD package (for $15 or so), “The Ultimate Birder,” along with a National Audubon Society guide, the North American Bird Reference Book, and a disc of eagle screensaver images.

Peterson’s books and other guides continue to be available, to be sure.

A variety of websites offer birding information, including, which seems to have good information in a reasonably accessible form and includes both photos and birdcalls. While the drawings didn’t strike me as being nearly as good, overall this and other resources probably make reasonable, scalable, free alternatives. If there’s an app for use on a mobile device, either free or for a modest price, ideally with the ability to download the full guide (for times you don’t have online service—e.g., on most hikes) that would seem to be the best of both worlds, as in the field is precisely where you want this most.

Ancient Origins

I reviewed this in the June/July 1999 DATABASE as one of several Codie candidates (actually, North American Birds was also received and reviewed as a Codie candidate). I was impressed, giving it a 95 (high Excellent score), saying “They don’t come much better than this.” Lots of content provided in a variety of thoughtful ways, with a timeline running from 5 million BC to 500 AD, offering a variety of ways to study 44 primary cultures—including more than 2,000 illustrations, 11 interactive excavations, 52 documentaries, 17 ancient instruments (some of which you could play), seven virtual reconstructions in QTVR, and a couple of indexes. It’s definitely a disc to explore.

Current installation and operation

Installation went smoothly (after I unchecked the “Install QuickTime” item, checked by default—it reminded me that some form of QuickTime was required). And, well, it started right up. It requires a 640x480 window, appears to use up to 800x600 and, unfortunately, takes over the primary screen entirely—it’s not a movable, scalable Windows-type window.

That said, it seems to work just fine.

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I thought it was a bargain for $40 in 1999. It’s still an impressive tool for exploring a range of cultures, and appears to be done with as much clarity and honesty as possible. The screenshot shows a European culture, but other regions are treated with depth and without apparent condescension. In the original review I said “Creationists will hate this disc, as will racial supremacists of any stripe.” I’ll stand by that comment. I thought you’d need 20 to 40 hours to explore the disc fully, and that might be an understatement. Would anybody give it that much time these days?

One other glitch (in addition to taking over the primary screen entirely, although there turns out to be an obscure Minimize button): When I tried to run it a second time, to pick up the screenshot above, the CD-ROM’s GO.EXE program said it wasn’t installed yet, and the copy of the AAW.EXE program on hard disc didn’t do anything—but when I double-clicked the AAW.EXE program on the CD-ROM, it started up just fine. The disc also runs on Macs, without installation, although I have no idea whether that includes OS X.

Amazon still lists the CD-ROM, but only from other sellers. At $10, it’s an even better bargain, albeit probably outdated since it’s missing 12 years of archaeology. shows at least 17 libraries owning this. It’s still useful and, indeed, an excellent way to gain better understanding of the variety of ancient cultures, far beyond the best-known examples.

Some That Don’t

Warwick Interactive offered a really interesting series of virtual museums with the running title “A Better Way to Explore Our Planet,” originally produced in Britain by the BBC and various other entities. I reviewed and liked “Lost Animals: Living on the Edge of Extinction” (highlighting 50 species that apparently went extinct in the 20th century), “Worlds of the Reef” (exploring the coral reef in the waters off Belize), and “Sonoran Desert” (explorations from the Gila Field Center in Arizona). Somewhere between six and two dozen libraries seem to have these titles. I wonder whether anybody’s attempted to use them lately? In my case, setup failed almost immediately on all three discs, with no apparent way to proceed.

In a fourth case, “Discovering Endangered Wildlife,” I’d apparently never reviewed it—and never will, since it didn’t install either. As many as two dozen libraries appear to own this one.

I also recall being fond of two Compton’s Home Library discs, The Genius of Edison and Battles of the World. At least 30 libraries own the first CD-ROM and more than 50 own the second. I couldn’t get either one to install.

The Dead Sea Scrolls Revealed didn’t quite rate an Excellent, but it was still a worthwhile exploration of the topic. It appeared to install, but attempting to run it yielded a Director error message suggesting my hard disk might be full (it had 160GB free space at that point) because it couldn’t copy a directory to the hard disk. Given that the disk came out in 1994 and was probably designed for Windows 3.1, maybe that’s not surprising. There are so many slightly different versions of this title on that I can only say some libraries own it—and a few own a 2006 version, directly from the Israeli institute that licensed this one to Logos. The 2006 version may be Mac-only or might be updated to actually work on contemporary systems.

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers is a virtual museum exhibit related to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 and the history of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers (or Hotamétaneo'o) in general, prepared in cooperation with the Colorado Historical Society. I gave it an Excellent rating in a June/July 1999 DATABASE review for its depth, honesty in portraying an American betrayal, and general quality. It didn’t require or allow installation, running directly from the CD-ROM, but without an Autoplay file, suggesting that the disc was really developed for the Mac and ported to Windows. Unfortunately, double-clicking on the appropriate .exe file (the only way to run it) yields…nothing. A shame. It’s still available, and more than a dozen libraries own the title. Best guess: It won’t run on any Windows from XP on. I could be wrong.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 11, Number 6, Whole # 141, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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