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CYBURBIA

109 Years Compressed Into 30 Disks

September 28, 1997|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A generation has grown up associating the National Geographic primarily with television documentaries. There's nothing much to fault with that--these films about wildlife and far-away places feature spectacular cinematography and are pretty entertaining.

But for generations past, the National Geographic was only a magazine, and in many households, one to be cherished. Entire bookcases would be given over to copies of the monthly, lovingly preserved for the time one might want to look up that article on the Congo, killer whales or ranch life in Venezuela that had been mentally earmarked for a rainy day. Collectors dreamed of obtaining a full set, which would be no easy task, as the first issue appeared in October 1888.

But now anyone with a home computer equipped with a CD-ROM drive can own 109 years of the National Geographic, unabridged, from that first issue all the way through 1996. "The Complete National Geographic" CD-ROM set, consisting of 30 disks, has just been issued by the magazine for the home market. It contains every page of the publication, including the National Geographic's justifiably hallowed photographs and even the ads.

That amounts to about 188,500 printed pages, covering 1,245 issues, according to the magazine's publishers. This digital archive comes in a box that takes up about the same amount of bookshelf space as a year's worth of paper copies of the magazine. The price, considering the breadth of this project, is also compact: $199.

The arrival of this CD-ROM set is certainly a landmark event in digital publishing, but the product does have its shortcomings.

Reading long articles on a computer screen is an arduous task. Printing out articles from the archive is possible, but it takes a lot of time and unless you have a high-end, laser color printer, the quality of the hard copies will be a far cry from that of the pages of the magazine.

Also, the rectangular-shaped pages of the magazine do not translate well to the square shape of the common, home computer monitor. To view a page in full, you have to look at it in long shot. The photos often look OK, if somewhat distant, from that vantage point, but the print is too small to read.

To read the print you have to zoom in, capturing only a part of the page at a time, and then scroll down to take in more. This is likewise not the most pleasant way to read, and you lose sense of the page's layout--the careful arrangement of photographs and text for full effect.

Clearly, the CD-ROM set can't provide the same experience as spending hours leafing through pages of the National Geographic. On the other hand, viewing the magazine on a computer screen is much more enjoyable than perusing the microfilmed copies owned by many libraries.

And the CD-ROM version does have one clear advantage over even print collections--indexing. To look for a subject that may have been covered by the National Geographic, you simply type it into the CD-ROM's search mode, which can be called up any time you're using the set. After a few seconds, a list of articles that contain your search words appear on your screen.

To go to one of these articles, you click on it, and the program tells you which CD-ROM (if you're not already using it) to insert.

I especially enjoyed checking out articles from different time periods on the same subject matter. A 1946 article on Florida's Everglades portrays the Seminoles--a group of American Indians descended from the Creek tribe--living there as a quiet, sullen people.

A 1969 piece focusing on the same group provides a fascinating portrait of a people not hesitant to exploit tourist dollars or accept the value of modern conveniences, but at the same time striving to retain the tribe's sense of community.

One of the most fascinating articles I found on the sample disks sent for review was an extensive railroad tour of Italy in 1939. The writer visits many of the famous wonders of that country, but also seeks out farms, fishing villages and rural communities. The intoxicating charm and style of the people come through, but occasionally there are ominous reminders--a boy practicing with a bayonet, a group of schoolgirls doing synchronized exercises in a large stadium and Mussolini speaking to a crowd near the famous cathedral in Milan (not far from where his body, after his execution in 1945, would hang for the public to see)--that this was a country ruled by fascism.

Even with its drawbacks, this CD-ROM set is a wonderful time machine. It would make a great gift for a student. Or here's another hint: A group of people in a community could come together to buy a copy for a local library, where the digital National Geographic could be enjoyed by many.

More information about the set, which can be used in either the Windows or Macintosh platforms, can be found at the magazine's World Wide Web site: http://www.nationalgeographic.com.

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Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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