Exploring On-line Libraries
By David Nicholson
Sunday, April 6 1997; Page X15
IMAGINE what it would be like if books sometimes inexplicably refused to open, and no amount of prying would force apart the locked covers. At other times, just as inexplicably and just as unpredictably, pages would refuse to turn, frustrating unlucky mystery readers who'd stayed up all night to learn whodunit.
And what if there were also no standards for book design, so that books came in every shape and size? Round and star-shaped paperbacks would be a pain to carry in a purse or pocket (the star-shaped ones literally so). Still, many readers might prefer them to scrolls, which would have an unfortunate tendency to unravel on the Metro, but possess a certain retro appeal. All this would be a minor inconvenience, however, compared to the fact that some books might have their pages bound in reverse order, while others have pages in random order. (Did I forget to mention that books would be sold sealed, so that you couldn't browse?) Pretty soon there'd be a specialized aftermarket in conversion kits.
Academic publishers would put their bibliographies and footnotes first, reasoning that their readers wanted to assess the quality of the research before learning the results. And some publishers might interrupt their texts by reprinting the table of contents every few pages. Most readers would find it jarring, but a significant minority might find the practice relaxing because it meant they didn't have to waste time flipping back and forth to see where they were.
Books don't work that way, of course, and the fact that they don't is the primary reason I'm skeptical when people talk about how their electronic counterparts -- books on floppy disk, the Internet, and CD-ROM -- will one day replace them. Anyone who's ever tried to install or use a CD-ROM can report the computer equivalent of the above horror stories, while anyone who's used the Internet knows how long it can take to contact a World Wide Web site or download a file.
Times like those make it clear that books are a nearly ideal information storage and retrieval medium. They're portable and easy to use, cheap enough so that you can take a paperback to the beach without worrying much about the water or sand -- something I'd never do with my Apple PowerBook, thank you very much. If that weren't enough, there's the paradox that a great deal (perhaps almost all) of the information we get about computers and the on-line world comes (you guessed it) from books or other text-based material.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet, by Evan Morris (Fawcett, $12.95). I skipped the first third, but if you're a book-lover with a new computer who's considering going on-line, those six chapters about the history of the Internet, what it offers, and how to get connected mean you'll have to buy just one book instead of two. The rest of it is more than 150 pages of listings of book-related resources on the Internet: discussion groups, literary magazines, reference material, and much more. This is essential reading for anyone who cares about books (but also has a foot in the world of computing), and a great place to start exploring on-line.
I used it to check out Project Gutenberg at http://gutenberg.etext.org:80/. (That's not the Web address Morris gives in his book; unfortunately, information about the Web that is codifed as printed text sometimes turns out to be wrong as things change and files are moved from computer to computer.) Project Gutenberg is an effort to store in digital form 10,000 texts and distribute them to 100 million readers by Dec. 31, 2001. So far, according to the index I downloaded, there are 624 texts, ranging from the U.S Constitution to "Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887," by Edward Bellamy. Most of the works are in the public domain, and include the Bible, Shakespeare, and other classics of English literature.
Despite my skepticism, however, it seems that electronic books are here to stay, even if they aren't (yet) nearly as popular as books on tape. For one thing, the personal computer is becoming as familiar a household object as the television (though still far less easy to use -- think of all the jokes about it on the comics pages). And the truth of the matter is that even after you cut through the hypertext hype there are advantages to electronic books.
Those advantages are readily apparent in The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (Macmillan Digital, $39.95; Windows and Macintosh), which takes a maximialist approach to the electronic book as compared with Project Gutenberg's text-only minimalist approach. This CD-ROM features more than 760 works of art from the museum's permanent collection, together with background information and commentary, and more than 600 artist biographies. There's nearly two hours of video, audio and slide show material, including a one-hour tour conducted by museum director Elizabeth Broun.
Hypertext, the links between words, pictures and other elements, is this (and other CD-ROMs') strength and weakness. Perusing the biographical entry for the painter Beauford Delaney (1901-79) in "Free Within Ourselves" (one of several "print-derived" books the CD-ROM contains), I clicked on the words "the African-American artist." Which took me to an entry summarizing the history of black artists in America, beginning with Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-72). Several miniature icons showed that reproductions of Duncanson's paintings were available. I clicked on one to view his "Landscape with Rainbow" (1859), and then on a link for "Hudson River School," which in turn led me to an entry defining the term Romantic, and then, as exhaustion and confusion set in, to the painting "Daniel Lamotte," by Thomas Sulley.
It just might be that I'm a print-centric old fogey, but as stunning as The NMAA was, I found Vermeer: An Exploration of the Artist and His Techniques (Chronicle, $39.95; Windows and Macintosh) more straightforward and accessible. Exploring The NMAA was like visiting a museum (which always leaves me feeling disoriented and a little guilty for not having been more conscientious about seeing more). Vermeer is like attending a lecture, in this case by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., a National Gallery of Art curator.
The disk features 21 paintings, but focuses on four: "Girl with the Red Hat," "Woman Holding a Balance," "View of Delft," and "Girl with a Pearl Earring." You begin with a screen showing reproductions of each painting. From there you can go to an introduction to Vermeer. Or you can click on a painting and get an introduction to it, a look at the painting itself, the history of the painting, an analysis of Vermeer's working methods, or an analysis of his painting techniques. One of the nicest features is the ability to click on certain areas of a painting -- the boats or figures in "View of Delft," for example -- and hear Wheelock's commentary on those aspects of the work. Chronicle has also published Bellini: The Feast of the Gods ($39.95; Windows and Macintosh.)
These three CD-ROMs show something of the power of electronic books. One Web site that shows the power, and the drawbacks, of books on the Internet is The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History http://blackhistory.eb.com. (It's free, unlike most of the Britannica site at http://www.eb.com, which is a subscription-only supplement to the Britannica Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. The on-line Britannica can be updated far more frequently than can print editions, making it a valuable tool for research.) From the handsome opening screen, which features photographs of Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and Billie Holiday, as well as sound -- a quote from Malcolm and a snippet of a Holiday song -- this is a well-designed site. It's also filled with information, nearly 600 articles, including a range of biographies from Hank Aaron to Whitney Young.
What's really impressive, though, is the site's multimedia features. There are 15 audio and video clips -- Holiday in performance, Thurgood Marshall in 1967 after he was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jesse Owens winning the 100-meter dash in Berlin in 1936, Gwendolyn Brooks reading her poetry. Be prepared to wait for these files to download, however, if you don't have a high-speed Internet connection -- the 19-second clip of Owens in Berlin took nearly five minutes to get to my computer.
The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History was prepared for Black History Month, but it should remain on line for a month or two longer.
David Nicholson is a Washington writer.
FROM TIME to time over the next year or so, I'll look at the world of
electronic books in this column. I'll focus, for the most part, on new
books, but that doesn't mean that I'll ignore older ones, particularly on the
Internet where that medium's original democratizing spirit remains alive
and well in numerous World Wide Web sites that contain digital versions
of reference works such as dictionaries or thesauruses, and literary works
in the public domain.
Do you know of a great book- or literary magazine-related Web site or
electronic book I ought to consider for this column? Let me know at:
© 1997 The Washington Post Co.
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