‘So, What’s Next for Clio?’ CD-ROM and Historians

by Roy Rosenzweig

March 1995

Topics in Digital History

This article was originally published in The Journal of American History 81, 4 (March 1995): 1621-1640 and is reprinted here with permission.


An interview last year on that bellwether of American culture, “Entertainment Tonight,” encapsulated the heady transformation that has shaken the world of electronic hypertext in the past year or two. Leeza Gibbons, winding up her chat with male model and free-lance “hunk” Fabio threw out the classic ET question: “So, what’s next for Fabio?” “Well, Leeza,” he answered, “I’m working on an interactive CD-ROM.” By early 1994, it seemed as if everyone–even historians, a group not particularly known for technological innovation–was working on interactive CD-ROMs. This was a surprising, really disconcerting development for people like me who had spent a good deal of time in the early 1990s defining CD-ROM to the blank stares of friends and acquaintances– “it’s just like a music CD, but holds lots of data,” I would sputter.

But in 1993 and 1994 the silvery five-inch plastic disk with the moniker “CD-ROM” (for “compact disc, read-only memory”) suddenly jumped from the obscure back pages of computer magazines to the front pages of the Wall Street Journal. Even the untrendy New York Times Book Review reviewed a CD-ROM for the first time in 1994. NEXIS, the electronic magazine and newspaper database, offers an easy way to track the dramatically increased interest. A search of a single week in February 1994 turns up 275 stories mentioning “CD-ROM.” The same week, a year earlier, had just one-third that number of references; in 1990 there were only nineteen. Indeed, given their ubiquity, it is startling to realize that the better-known cousin of the CD-ROM, the audio compact disc is less than fifteen years old, dating back to the early 1980s when Sony and Philips brought out disks that held seventy-four minutes (the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) of digital sound. A few years later in 1985, Grolier issued its twenty-volume Academic American Encyclopedia on a single CD-ROM, the first consumer product in that medium.1 Initial growth was slow for the simple reason that few people owned CD-ROM drives; but in 1993 alone four million were sold, (and by the end of 1994 it was estimated that fifteen million would be in use) and the number of CD-ROM titles began to explode–8,000 of them by fall 1994 according to one estimate.2 One sure sign of commercial success was the appearance in 1993 of large numbers of sexually explicit CD-ROMs–from “The Adventures of Seymour Butts” to “Penthouse Interactive.”

The sudden crush of everyone from Fabio to the Penthouse Pets onto the infobahn is obviously fueled by the belief that it is paved with gold. A recent article in another leading indicator of American popular culture, USA Today, gushed with excitement about interactive movies coming to your local CD-ROM drive. Although the article admitted some puzzlement over what exactly constituted an interactive movie, it nevertheless enthused that “whatever it turns out to be, Hollywood wants a piece of it.” Thus, it is not surprising to learn, as James Gleick reports, “the word in financial circles is that a business card containing the word interactive will pass the bearer through any door in corporate America.”3 Such dreams of sudden riches are hardly surprising in an era in which the second richest man in America is a thirty-seven-year-old computer nerd.

Although few of us would object to becoming “as rich as Bill Gates” (as the cliche’ of the future will no doubt put it), it is dreams of intellectual as much as financial riches that have begun to attract historians to the new media. Can electronic media transform the way we research, analyze, teach, and present the past? Surely, the answer is yes, but I would also argue that we need to be as cautious of intellectual as of financial hype. Historians know all too well that new technologies often bring with them unrealized utopian visions. The new world of electronic media already has its share of failed prophets. More than thirty years ago, Ted Nelson, the visionary who coined the catchy term, “hypertext,” predicted that print books would be obsolete in five years. A less ambitious prophet than Nelson more modestly and more recently forecast that within ten years “the book as we know it will be as obsolete as movable type today.”4 That prediction, of course, is now more than a decade old.

But the failure of these hyperpredictions should not lead us to a reverse hypercynicism. After all, CD-ROMs offer some genuinely exciting possibilities for historians. They hold enormous amounts of data–about 650 megabytes or the equivalent of 300,000 typed pages or 100 million words–a significant attraction to historians (as compared, say, to philosophers or literary critics), who frequently deal with large quantities of data. Imagine, for example, that this journal were available on CD-ROM–the entire eighty years would fit easily on a single disk by my estimate.5 Besides the savings in shelf space–not a trivial matter for most professional historians I know–consider the advantages in having this vast record of the history of American historical scholarship readily at hand, making it just as easy to find out what the journal’s reviewer thought of Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South in the September 1993 issue as the response to C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South in the June 1952 issue.6 Moreover, given the economics of electronic publishing, once the journal’s back issues were put into digital form (admittedly not a small task), CD-ROM subscribers could receive a full archive of all back issues along with their new issue at no additional cost–indeed for less than it costs to print a single issue in the current paper format. Vast forests currently being sacrificed on the altar of historical knowledge would be spared.

But even more interesting are the possibilities opened up by having all those words in digital form, which makes it relatively easy to locate and keep track of the vast body of information packed into a single disk. What historian hasn’t spent long hours trying to find a particular quote, knowing that he or she read it somewhere? More than that, think about the ways that the use of historical concepts and categories could be readily traced over time. Although key word searches are getting more sophisticated all the time, they have their limitations. (What if you are interested in republicanism and not the Republican Party?) But given the choice of writing an essay on the language of class in the past fifty years of the Journal of American History based on a key-word indexed CD-ROM versus two bookcases worth of paper copies (which include, by the way, one of the best annual indexes of any scholarly journal), I think almost anyone would take the CD-ROM. Indeed, there are many sorts of projects (changing views of historical movements and historical figures, changing reputations of particular historians, changing language in historical writing) that are much easier to conceive undertaking with an electronic rather than a paper archive. To be sure, none of this guarantees historical work of real insight; it is all too easy to imagine or parody mechanical essays that count various words or names in this or any other publication. The point simply is that putting information in digital form makes it easier and faster to get down to the genuinely difficult work of analysis and synthesis.

Finally, because the 0s and 1s that compose digital information are a kind of lingua franca, CD-ROMs can handle a variety of kinds of data–not just text but also pictures, sounds, and moving images. In a multimedia edition of the Journal of American History, Edward J. Escobar’s article in the March 1993 issue on “The Dialectics of Repression: The Los Angeles Police Department and the Chicano Movement” would include film clips of the August 29, 1970 Chicano Anti-War protest and excerpts from Escobar’s interviews with the Chicano activists who organized that demonstration and helped to lead the larger struggle against the Los Angeles Police Department. Or, Margaret McFadden’s article on Jack Benny in the June 1993 issue would be illustrated not just by photos of the Benny cast but also with audio excerpts from the radio programs themselves.

Despite these intriguing prospects, the experience of past technological enthusiasts should make us a bit cautious in our claims about CD-ROMS. Minimally, they should force us to ask continually the question of whether new technology is, in fact, better than old. I am told that at the multimedia division of Microsoft, they used to start morning meetings by holding up a paperback book and asking: can you top this?

That simple question offers a useful frame for this effort at evaluating some of the surprisingly large number of history CD-ROMs that have appeared in the past few years. But in order to ask “can you top this,” we need to define what “this” is. The computer world operates heavily on analogies and metaphors–desktops, pages, windows, mice, information highways–and not surprisingly CD-ROMs have taken their cues from existing non-computer forms. Thus far, history CD-ROMs have fallen loosely into four main categories or genres: databases; documentaries; games; and books. The following essay reviews some exemplary (in the good and bad senses of the term) titles in each of these four categories. The four-part division is necessarily an artificial one; some of the best works, as we shall see, transcend existing generic categories. Indeed, one important criteria for judging the quality of these disks is the degree to which they go beyond and, hence, improve upon existing forms. Moreover, even as a review essay, this one requires some boundary straddling between a concern with “form” (how well do the disks exploit the possibilities of the medium?) and “content” (how well do they convey an accurate, persuasive, or engaging view of the past?). Again, the best works are those that bring together form and content in new and creative ways.7


Databases have been among the first and most widely distributed history CD-ROMs. They are also some of the worst. A prime example of all three characteristics is U.S. History on CD-ROM, which was released by Bureau Development, Inc. in 1990. A typical ad for this extensively advertised and expensively priced ($395) disk promises “107 books, 1001 pictures, tables and maps, plus detailed coverage of U.S. political, social, military, and economic history. Perfect for research or lesson planning.”8 “Odd” might be a better description than “perfect” for the contents of the disk. Take the category “American People,” one of the ten main categories in which books are arranged on the disk (the others include “The Armed Forces: Structure and History,” “The U.S. Government,” and “Wars and Conflicts.”) The instruction manual tells you to “look here for biographies as well as for social histories and studies of modern social problems.” Yet, almost half the titles in this category are military history books like A History of Women Marines, 1946-1977 or Black Americans in Defense of Our Nation.9 The category, “General Histories,” barely broadens the coverage. Of the thirteen volumes included there, two are also military histories, one is a history of the U.S. Senate by Senator Robert C. Byrd, and eight are the different volumes of Benson J. Lossing’s “History of the United States From the Discovery of America to the Present Time”–1905 that is. Although the work of Lossing, one of the most prolific popular historians of the nineteenth century, is of interest to those concerned with changing modes of popular history, his eight-volume, “Our Country,” does not sit on the basic reference shelf of most historians.10 The one more recent “general history,” United States History, 1600-1987, turns out to be a “federal citizenship text” from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Even if these titles enticed you, you would probably not want to read them on a computer screen, since they are presented in unattractive, long scrolling fields.

It should be obvious by this point that what these 107 books have in common is not their coverage of American history but rather their status as public domain documents. A few are out-of-copyright works like Lossing’s “Our Country,” but most were produced by such government agencies as the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress, which are not allowed to copyright their work. (The lack of copyright does not prevent the Bureau of Development from publishing its own copyright claim on the disk.) To be sure, there are some useful works of history on this disk; after all these government agencies have turned out some fine pieces of work over the years. For my money, the real gem here is the transcripts of the Nixon tapes issued by the Senate Judiciary in 1974. Moreover, the disk offers an impressively fast search mechanism. It only takes a few seconds to search the entire disk for the four items that include the words “presidency,” and “cancer,” and “deleted.” In just a few more seconds, you can locate the correct reference and read John Dean telling Richard Nixon: “We have a cancer within, close to the Presidency, that is growing daily” or Nixon offering some of his famous “expletive deleteds.”

If we knew what Nixon was actually saying, it would probably be a good description of U.S. History on CD-ROM. For a more genteel audience, the term “shovelware” will do–a term that serves equally well for a series of disks on U.S. wars that Quanta Press has issued. The USA Wars: Korea on CD-ROM is a typical title. The publisher’s catalog refers to it as a “multimedia database” on “U.S. involvement in the Korean conflict,” but I could only find pictures and text and not the interviews with those “who gallantly heeded our nations [sic] call to arms on that hilly Asian peninsula a long, long time ago” that the “publishers [sic] notes” promise.11 But, then again, it is hard to find much of anything on this disk; in the absence of an obvious feature like a table of contents, the only way to discover what is included is to click your way through the 1,502 “cards” in this database. When you do, you learn that 1,000 pictures–images of battles, generals, planes, and weapons–compose the largest section of the disk. Surely, this is a useful resource for some purposes, but that usefulness is limited by the relatively poor quality of the images, the delay in loading the images on to the screen, and the program’s failure to offer any easy way to rearrange the pictures in a more useful order. The text portion of Korea is reminiscent of the public domain hodgepodge of US history. More than just reminiscent: Korea includes portions of precisely the same documents–the Korean sections of “The History of the Women Marines” and of Robert Byrd’s “History of the U.S. Senate”; even the section of Lossing’s “Our Country” on the Russo-Japanese War (with no indication that this comes from a book published in 1905). The frightening thought is that the research for this disk consisted of searching on the word “Korea” in U.S. history on CD-ROM–as if that had now become the universe of research works on any subject in American history.12

“Vietnam Remembered” on CD-ROM shares the same unappealing design, poor software, and lack of conceptualization as Korea. But it does include a larger amount of useful data.13 That is not surprising since it includes more than 70,000 cards, albeit about eighty percent of them individual cards on each of the people commemorated at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But there are also some worthwhile statistics, glossaries, chronologies, and government hearings (including the 1971 Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam). Much of that value is lost, however, in the absence of a clear organizing principle for the material and easy ways for locating what you want. Although all three of these databases offer electronic searching of all text (something not available in print books), they are, on the whole, harder to use than hard copies of the same material with a good index.

“The Archives of History: A Moving-Image Retrospective of the Twentieth Century” is a database that offers something you can’t find in a book–movies. Using QuickTime, the software that Apple developed for displaying movies on a computer screen, it presents 250 film clips ranging from the Spanish American War to the Persian Gulf War. There are a number of attractive features to this disk. It is reasonably well designed and easy to use. Because its software is built on HyperCard (a program development tool for non-programmers that Apple began including with all Macintosh computers in 1987), it has a number of features that will be familiar to Macintosh users, including a simple, but effective, find feature. Most important, the film clips cover a broad and eclectic range of subjects; the section on the 1950s, for example, has clips of Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the Montgomery Bus Boycott as well as the hulahoop craze and Elvis joining the Army. History instructors equipped with the appropriate computer and projection equipment could intersperse some of these clips into classroom lectures in the same way that they now use slides. In the not-too-distant future, they could be part of a multimedia syllabus: a student clicks on the week on the New Deal and sees FDR inaugurated. (This is feasible because the publishers of this disk own the rights to the clips and give purchasers explicit rights to copy them and use them for “in house” purposes, including educational tutorials and presentations.) More disappointing is the length of the clips, all of which are under fifty seconds and some of which are under four seconds. It is nice to see Nixon in 1962 saying “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” but that is all he says. Moreover, the clips share the limitations of all movies digitized with the original QuickTime software: they look best in a tiny 1 3/4″ by 2 1/4″ window, and they generally play at a jumpy twelve frames per second (compared to thirty frames per second in standard video).14

Some of the most appealing clips in the Archives of History are the least “serious”–FDR complaining about Republican attacks on his “little dog Fala” in the 1930s; Clark Gable as a gunner in the 1940s; Haile Selassie comparing baseballs with Casey Stengel at a Yankee game in the 1950s. This idea of recovering forgotten and amusing slices of American culture that were captured on film becomes the organizing principle for two disks assembled by “media archaeologist” Richard Prelinger–”To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films, 1931-1945″ and” You Can’t Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films, 1946-1960.” Among the eclectic delights included are home movies from the New York World’s Fair; a surprisingly lurid 1931 Max Fleischer cartoon advertising the new Olds, In My Merry Oldsmobile; and excerpts from such classic instructional films of the late 1940s and early 1950s as “Dating: Do’s and Don’ts,” “What to Do on a Date,” and “A Date With Your Family.” For those who grew up in the 1950s, Prelinger’s films bring back chilling memories of an era in which the “A.V. squad” wheeled in the sixteen-mm projector to show “guidance” films with reminders like “pleasant, unemotional [family dinner] conversation helps digestion” or mother “owes it to the men of the family to look relaxed” for dinner.

On Prelinger’s disks, the clips are longer (and better digitized and presented) than in the Archive of History. But what really makes these two admittedly quirky titles stand out among the several history “databases” reviewed here is the care with which they have been contextualized and analyzed. For each film, Prelinger offers a brief and perceptive commentary that suggests why the film is of continuing interest as a piece of cultural history. More radical proponents of hypertext and multimedia might argue that such framing and contextualizing reflects an “old-fashioned” linearity and that the new media should simply put the “user” in command. My own view is that a lack of context and an absence of organizing principles is just as likely to be disempowering and confusing. Multimedia and hypertext have the potential to offer multiple perspectives and to allow readers to draw their own conclusions, but that potential is best realized where, as in good books, readers can encounter real authors with deeply held convictions–even if the reader ultimately rejects those perspectives. Thus, another thing that recommends the Ephemeral Films disks is that they reflect the choices and vision of a particular individual. In all of the other disks, the material included seems dictated by what happened to be available in the public domain or by some other hard to discern, but apparently random, criteria.

In a limited way, the two Ephemeral Films disks point up the possibilities of truly imaginative and useful history databases on CD-ROM–for example, a multimedia version of the complete Notable American Women or The Encyclopedia of the American Left or even just the text version of The Dictionary of American Biography. So far, the main category of multimedia reference works on CD-ROM have been encyclopedias. Although some of these–for example, Microsoft’s Encarta–are very nicely organized and presented, like print encyclopedia, they are of limited utility for historians teaching at the post-secondary level.15


Databases are an obvious choice for history CD-ROMs because they draw upon the ability of digital media to bring together large amounts of data, which can be accessed in multiple ways. An equally obvious use of the medium draws on its multimedia capabilities to tell a story. In this instance, the CD-ROM becomes a vehicle for delivering something akin to a documentary film–a synthesized narrative of some historical event or development.

A representative, if not particularly inspiring, example of the history CD-ROM documentary is Queue, Inc.’s History of the Blues. This critically praised disk provides a solid, but relatively perfunctory, history of the blues in four parts (“Roots,” “12-Bar Blues,” “Classic Blues,” and “City Blues”). In each section, a narrator reads a basic text (that is also displayed on screen) accompanied by changing images and music (but surprisingly no full compositions). The narration, which is weak on historical context, unfolds in a bland style with a preference for the passive voice. “African captives,” the narrator tells us, “were brought to the U.S. as slaves,” where “their freedom to travel was restricted.” Although digital media make multiple pathways easy to lay out, History of the Blues follows a linear path with no real hypertext links. (The index simply takes you to “cards” in the story that are vaguely related to what you have chosen; if you select “Chuck Berry,” you are shown a picture of Berry but no information about Berry himself.) Although “interactivity” is a favored description for multimedia CD-ROMs, History of the Blues is arguably less interactive than an ordinary print book, which at least asks you to turn the pages. “Passivity” offers a good description of not only the style of the narration but also the experience of using the disk.16

If such disks remind you of those sound filmstrips you saw in junior high school, the analogy turns out to be disturbingly accurate. Another disk in the same spoken documentary style and also from Queue, Inc. (a major publisher of educational CD-ROMs), Black American History: Slavery to Civil Rights, turns out be a recycled filmstrip–and a twenty-five-year-old one at that. What is particularly disturbing for a product that lists for $395, although unfortunately not atypical for this genre, is that the CD-ROM offers no direct acknowledgement of its low-tech parentage. The first tip off that something is amiss is the realization that one of the eight main sections of the disk is devoted to “the Kerner Commission Report” (surely not an event we would currently consider coequal with Reconstruction) and that the final section on “Black Protest Movements” ends with a discussion of the Black Panthers and the protests at the 1968 Olympics. A check of the transcript of the spoken narration (provided on the disk) reveals a 1970 copyright to something called “History of the Black Man in the United States,” a sexist title that further reflects the product’s datedness. And further research in library catalogs turns up a filmstrip with that precise title and organizational structure.17

To be sure, the old filmstrip takes on some new features in its electronic guise, some of them for the worse. For example, mind-numbing quizzes are interspersed through the text and you must answer them before the spoken narration resumes. (A typical example: “Racist myths, in indirect and subconscious ways, have portrayed: A) blacks as princesses and heroes; B) white superiority; C) both A and B.)18 Here is interactivity at its worst. The “narrated text section,” which includes some valuable audio material–for example, speeches by Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X as well as Langston Hughes and June Jordan reading poems–is a more promising addition to the disk. Their value and that of the small number of textual documents like the Emancipation Proclamation would have been even greater if the anonymous creators of the disk had placed these selections in context and linked them to relevant sections of the basic narrative of black history. A disk that offered students the opportunity to learn more about Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X after reading a brief introduction to these men comes closer to my own definition of “interactivity” than forcing them to answer uninspired quizzes.

A considerably more ambitious, but ultimately disappointing, documentary CD-ROM is Time Warner’s “Seven Days in August,” which MacWorld magazine named one of the ten best CD-ROMs of 1993.19 The disk chronicles the story of the Berlin crisis of 1961 through six main sections, which are in turn organized into seven or eight key “days”–the seven days of the 1961 crisis and the day the Wall fell in 1989. “The Wall,” for example, provides a day-by-day account of the construction of the wall through photo montage and spoken narration. (Disappointingly, the disk does not use QuickTime to present any actual film footage of the rise and fall of the Wall.) Two other sections–”Berliners” and “Berlin, Wisconsin”–use oral history interviews and old photos to implicitly contrast the lives of Germans at the heart of the crisis and Americans in a small town thousands of miles away. “Home Front” provides seven, five- to six-minute “mini documentaries” in the form of slide shows on such diverse topics as backyard fallout shelters, the Freedom Riders, and Mickey Mantle and Roger Marris’s race to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record. “Roundtable” presents the “authoritative” voices of the obligatory white guys in suits–both journalists like Time’s Strobe Talbott and Russian Valentin Berezkhov and government officials like McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser to Kennedy during the crisis, and Egon Bahr, an adviser to Willy Brandt. “Profiles” offers biographical information on the key players in the crisis–in this single case the information is in text rather than spoken narration. The “days” are a clever, but ultimately forced, organizing device for the disk. They work well for the basic story of the wall, but there is no particular reason why, for example, the space race is linked to Thursday August 10th in the home front section and the Peace Corps to Wednesday August 16th.

“Seven Days” stands out for its expensive production values (it reportedly cost more than a million dollars to develop), its ease of use, and its broad vision of what a disk on the Berlin Crisis might entail. Rather than place the story in an exclusively diplomatic context, the disk conveys a sense of what the summer of 1961 was like for ordinary people in both Germany and America. Adding to the breadth of the disk are a delightful set of “Souvenirs of ’61,” including samples from the Sunday Funnies, selections from the TV listings for that August, and excerpts from some hit songs (Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour” by Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group). Two games–”First Lady of Fashion” and “For the Record”–ask you to serve as fashion adviser to Jackie Kennedy or demonstrate your knowledge of baseball trivia. The disk also adds depth to the conventional diplomatic history story by including textual documents in an “archive,” which seems somewhat hidden away–perhaps because the creators of the disk were embarrassed at including such a text-heavy feature.

“Seven Days” offers some valuable and appealing resources in a polished package, but it is disappointing in what it says about the Berlin Crisis and about America in the early 1960s. Or really what it doesn’t say: the disk offers no clear cut interpretive vision of domestic life or foreign affairs. Although it is admirable for its eclectic inclusion of popular culture along with high diplomacy, it makes no serious analytical effort to link the two, to connect the building of the Berlin Wall with the quest for a new home run record. Some may find it appropriate or even appealing that a high-tech product seemingly brings with it the death of the author, but my own view is that electronic media need to reflect the same energy, commitment, and vision as that found in good books or films. Moreover, “Seven Days”, in the absence of a strong interpretation to the contrary, winds up conveying a conventional and predictable perspective on the period: a nostalgic view of small-town America and American popular culture, which ignores the rampant sexism and racism of both, and an uncritical outlook on American foreign policy that depicts an innocent America wandering into a confrontation with a totalitarian Soviet and East German state and, thus, ignores the revisionist interpretation that America contributed in major ways to the crisis.20 The smooth production values and smooth interpretive line of “Seven Days” seem to reflect its corporate parentage.

Whereas “Seven Days” exemplifies the resources and the vision of a giant corporation, “Twelve Roads to Gettysburg” is very much a personal product. Although it lacks some of the fancy production values of “Seven Days”, “Twelve Roads” also embodies the considerable energy and distinctly personal vision of its author, Steve Hawks–one of the very few history CD-ROMs, in fact, where you can point to a particular individual who is the author. Refreshingly, Hawks inserts himself into the disk, telling us not only about his background as the head of a small computer multimedia production company and a “Yankee” (five Hawkses were with Michigan regiments at Gettysburg, he informs us) but also as an avid and unashamed “amateur historian.” “Yes,” he writes, “I’m an Amateur. I am not a professional historian. But I will not apologize for that; it has only been in the last hundred years or so that it has been a rule in the U.S. that only professionals can write history. . . . I was told once: never be ashamed of being an amateur. Amateur comes from ‘to love;’ amateurs work for the love of it.”

And, as promised, “Twelve Roads to Gettysburg” is a labor of love. The core of the disk is an extremely detailed day-by-day (and sometimes minute-by-minute) recounting of the battle, which is presented through text and voice-over narration with accompanying maps schematically showing the movements of Union and Confederate troops. But the disk also offers a number of supplementary materials: a narrated account of the events preceding and following the battle of Gettysburg; a database on the Confederate and Union armies (including details on their weapons, leaders, and the status of each unit); and a description of Gettysburg today. Still, the focus remains resolutely on military history. The section on the road to war gestures toward “controversy over years of slavery” but then moves briskly back to its parade of generals and battles. If you are looking for analysis of the fundamental causes and consequences of Civil War, you are looking in the wrong place; if you are looking to see how a passionate devotee of a historical subject with some computer skills (but relying on off-the-shelf software) can creatively present an old subject in a new way, then Twelve Roads to Gettysburg has something to teach you.


Perhaps not surprisingly games are currently the largest selling category of CD-ROMs. But, thus far, they have only been used to a limited extent as a means of teaching about the past. The most prominent example of a historical game on CD-ROM is The Oregon Trail, which had its start as a best-selling floppy disk program and in 1993 appeared in an enhanced CD-ROM version. MECC explicitly markets The Oregon Trail as an “education simulation that provides an opportunity to experience one of the great adventures in U.S. history.”21 Indeed, it is one of the few CD-ROMs to offer a teacher guide with specific lesson plans. Students, it promises, will “learn about westward expansion and the settling of the Old West” by selecting a character whom they must guide through the perils of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.22 If your party survives the journey, which takes about a half hour to complete, you receive a score based on the number of survivors, the survivor’s health, and the occupation of the leader of the group. (Since carpenters, for example, start out with fewer resources than bankers, they receive more points for successfully completing the journey.) The Oregon Trail is an engaging game that will appeal to many young students. Although the teacher guide suggests that it is appropriate to grades five to twelve, friends tell me that they have played it with younger children; at the same time, it is hard to imagine that it would appeal to high school students.

Although The Oregon Trail is marketed as teaching history and social studies, its primary educational value seems to lie largely outside those disciplines. Indeed, the teacher guide implicitly acknowledges that point when it lists the “learning objectives” the game supports, as including “decision-making skills,” “comprehension skills,” and “relevancy appreciation skills,” but no particular historical skills. Younger students will no doubt learn about how to make decisions about planning for a long journey (which supplies are most useful?) or dealing with adversity (should you rest when someone is hurt?), but most historical learning would likely be accidental. They might pick up some historical “facts” along the way by consulting the “guide,” which offers seventy-three brief paragraphs on topics ranging from the Arapaho Indians to the Whitman Mission or gain some sense of the problems faced by those who made this journey. But the largest historical “lesson” that they are likely to learn is one that would make “new” Western historians cringe: the trail west was a great and exciting adventure in which “rugged pioneers” overcame an “unpredictable frontier.”23

The fundamental problem for historians in using the obviously appealing game format is that games are ultimately based on decision trees–in which the choices must be yes or no (1 or 0 to the computer) and not maybe. But historians are great fans of “maybe,” “perhaps,” “partially,” and, even “yes and no.” It is hard to build the ambiguity, subtlety, and nuance that is the essence of historical analysis into a game. Probably the most promising approach is to take what The Oregon Trail does a step further and build more “real” historical content into the backdrop of the game–include actual diaries, letters, land records, newspaper articles, or census manuscripts that students must read and understand in order to proceed with the game. Or, at least, include supplementary material on the CD-ROM for students who get interested enough to explore the subject further. The teacher guide, for example, claims that “events in the program are adapted from diaries that describe the many hardships faced by travelers.” If that is the case, why not have included some of those diaries in the ample free space on the disk?24

One strategy for using the attributes of a game to teach historical skills might be to develop disks that require students to investigate a historical problem. Some of the possibilities of such an electronic investigation are hinted at by JFK Assassination: A Visual Investigation from Medio Multimedia. Although this CD-ROM does not directly make use of the attributes of a game, it is interestingly organized around what remains a deeply debated historical question.25 To help you try to decide “What really happened in Dealey Plaza?”, the disk provides video clips of four surviving films that captured pieces of the assassination, including the famous Zapruder film, which can be viewed frame-by-frame. It also offers computer-animated simulations of the assassination from different angles and perspectives; a library of assassination photos (including some rather gruesome shots of Kennedy’s wounds); a map of Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination; and the full text of The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Complete Book of Facts, The Warren Commission Report (although not the many volumes of witness testimony that are de rigueur on the shelf of any assassination buff), and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs, one of the sources for Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Although Medio Multimedia President Steve Podradchik says in a press release that the disk “takes no point of view on the subject,” the reality seems a bit more complicated.26 For example, if one selects “conclusions” on the “overview” screen of the program, you are presented with a summary of the conclusions of Marrs’s book, which is itself a kind of compendium of conspiracy theories (e.g., Oswald was “framed,” there was a high-level conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and “people within the federal government”–probably including Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover–”were both involved in and aware of such a conspiracy” or at least joined in a coverup of it). But the disk never entirely sticks to its seeming endorsement of Marrs’s version of the assassination. Instead, it tends to refer to “conspiracy theorists” as an abstract and unitary category (sometimes modified by the words “many” or “some” but often unmodified) rather than to make clear that there are dozens of different and often incompatible theories of the Kennedy assassination. Admittedly, The J.F.K Assassination: A Complete Book of Facts does provide something of a guide to this tangled thicket of theories and counter-theories, but it would probably be more accurate to describe the perspective of the disk as muddled than as open-ended. Moreover, as a venture into historical inquiry, this CD-ROM stays narrowly focused on the question of “who done it” and, thus, ignores the even more important contextual questions of what the case tells us about American politics and culture, including why after more than three decades, an estimated 80 percent of Americans believe there was a conspiracy and reject the “official” verdict of the Warren Commission. The seeming lack of concern for the largest issues of either historical methodology or historical analysis is unfortunate, since JFK Assassination is a technically polished piece of work: well organized, easy to use, and provided with many helpful hypertextual links.27 Moreover, JFK Assassination: A Virtual Investigation does provide some extremely valuable resources for teachers who are prepared to take the time to guide students through an investigation of their own. Equally important, it suggests that the format of the electronic historical investigation is itself worthy of further investigation.28


Few ideas meet more resistance–particularly among people over forty–than the notion that you might read a book on a computer. Bob Stein, one of the founders of The Voyager Company, acknowledged some of that resistance when he said that the “expanded books” on floppy disks that his company began to publish in 1992 were intended to look “enough like a book so that people who like books won’t puke at the sight of it.”29 It is not without reason, that Stein’s company has coined the slogan: “Text: the Next Frontier.”

Have CD-ROM publishers begun to conquer that frontier? Not all of them by any stretch of the imagination. Speaking of no imagination, consider “The African American Experience: A History.”30 The core of this CD-ROM is a solid, but somewhat bland, narrative of black history from pre-history to the present. In the style of most textbooks, it tends to avoid controversy (conflict within the black community, for example) and cast the past in affirmative tones. Although racism and oppression are discussed, criticism of specific white Americans is often muted. Thus, we learn that many progressives were white and middle class but not that some prominent progressives like Woodrow Wilson were deeply racist. Given the space on the disk, the coverage is not particularly deep–perhaps only 3,300 words are devoted to the crucial chapter on the battle for Civil Rights between 1954 to 1963. Even more disappointing are the washed-out looking illustrations, the sometimes unreadable maps, the unattractive layout and typography, and the uninspiring audio clips, which consist of an actor (not very dramatically) reading (not always accurately) brief sections of the chapter. In process, the disk misses the wonderful opportunity offered by CD-ROM to present black blues performers singing, Marcus Garvey speaking, or sharecroppers recalling life in the early twentieth century.

Not only does the disk fail to take advantage of the multimedia advantages of CD-ROM, it in many ways is a step back from the printed book. It is, for example, confusing and difficult to “navigate” (“read” in normal parlance). If you are reading the basic text and decide to explore one of the “focus on” topics that is offered, you cannot return to where you stopped unless you manage to remember the chapter number and then page through to where you left off. Surprisingly, The African American Experience offers few ways to locate specific places in the text. For example, it eschews page numbers–an admittedly old fashioned, but quite effective, navigational device. Nor is their any sort of index–another traditional but necessary tool for reading.

A more disturbing way in which this disk retreats from the traditional virtues of the book is the effacement of authorship. The disk includes no information on authorship at all. Only when my suspicions led me to the library catalog did I find out that The African American Experience started out as a print book published by the Globe Book Company, a division of Simon & Schuster (a division, in turn, of Paramount–now Viacom). The print book lists three people–Sharon Harley, Stephen Middleton, and Charlotte M. Stokes–on the title page as “consultants,” and one assumes that they had an important role in the development of the text, but that role is ignored in the authorless CD-ROM. Also obscured in the transition from print to electronic media is the corporate identity of the Globe Book Company. The disk seems to imply that this text is the product of a black-owned and operated company rather than a billion-dollar conglomerate.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: History Maker, which bills itself as “the only fully narrated, illustrated, encyclopedic, interactive multimedia biography,” is neither the product of a giant conglomerate nor of faceless non-authors. The “User’s Manual” credits what sounds like a largely family enterprise, including Marc Schulman as author, Daniel Schulman as a researcher and Sue Schulman as an editor. But if the authors are credited, they–like the producers of “Seven Days” and many other electronic products–do not possess a strong or distinct authorial voice. The prose is generally bland and poorly edited with an inclination toward the passive voice. To the extent that Schulman and his collaborators offer an interpretation, it is an old-fashioned one that gives Roosevelt all the credit for the major initiatives of the New Deal. Moreover, there are startling gaps in the coverage–little or nothing on African Americans, workers, radicals, women, or Japanese internment–and numerous historical errors. Some of these foster a misleadingly positive view of FDR as when he is praised for introducing an Anti-Lynching bill that he never supported and, in fact, helped to undercut.

If the text biography is best skipped, the 100 video clips are more enticing. Unfortunately, the clips are often poorly transferred and edited, which greatly undercuts their value. More problematic is the lack of contextualization. The clip on the Bonus Army is hard to see but it still has an interesting narration from the original newsreel. But students viewing the clip would be unlikely to know the source of narration or to realize that it betrays a sharp bias against the marchers. There is no evidence of the sort of care that Rick Prelinger put into explicating the historical context of his ephemeral films. Still, the disk does include some useful resources–the better of the clips, about fifty textual documents, and a number of pictures–that suggest what a multimedia version of a first-class biography (say, Blanche Wiesen Cooke’s Eleanor Roosevelt) might be like.

An even better sense of how CD-ROM can enhance a book can be glimpsed in the “complete multimedia edition” of The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House, which was issued by Sony Imagesoft on CD-ROM simultaneously with the publication of the print version–the first joint release of a major book in both media. Haldeman himself apparently came up with the idea of publishing his diaries in CD-ROM after he saw Sony’s version of the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book. When Sony executives asked: “What makes this a multimedia project?” Haldeman told them “I’ve got twenty-seven hours of film.”31 The disk’s forty-five minutes of Haldeman’s “home movies” of everything from Nixon dancing with Pat at Tricia’s wedding to Kissinger’s return from his secret trip to China are the most delightful bonus that the CD-ROM offers over the book. But there is also considerably more: the full 2,200 pages of the diary (rather than the 1,000 pages in the print version); more than 700 photos (from an inscribed Bebe Rebozo souffle recipe to a shot of Nixon chatting with Debbie Reynolds after Sunday services); a complete presidential appointment book; almost forty brief (and poorly recorded) audio clips of Haldeman’s recorded dictation of sections of the diary; a 130-page letter that Haldeman wrote, but never sent, to Watergate prosecutor James Neal, in which he disputes the charges on which he was convicted, and biographical information on almost 900 different people mentioned in the diaries.32

This is not the place to evaluate what the diaries themselves tell us about the Nixon presidency. Stanley Kutler provides a nice summary, when he says that whereas the Nixon “tapes revealed Nixon’s shabbiness; the diaries underline his shallowness.”33 The great triumph of the CD-ROM is that it highlights and deepens (if such a thing is possible) that Nixonian shallowness. Who can resist typing “Jews” and “Jewish” into the search window? Within seconds, we have a list of the sixty-four relevant entries and are reading Nixon telling Haldeman that the Rev. Billy Graham “has the strong feeling that the Bible says that there are satanic Jews and that’s where our problem arises.”34 Or, instantly, we jump to the entry of March 7, 1971: “The P.” as Haldeman calls him, has returned from church services at Camp David, and he is mad. The services were led by a rabbi. “He made the point,” Haldeman records, “that there are only five million Jews out of 200 million people, so one rabbi service in the first term would have been enough; we shouldn’t have had a second one, and he certainly doesn’t want any more this term.”

As Kutler says of the print diaries, “no single work so effectively exposes Nixon as a mean, petty, vindictive, insecure—even incompetent—man.”35 But the CD-ROM adds a comic/pathetic layer to the portrait—a farcical “Springtime for Nixon,” as New York Times columnist Frank Rich aptly characterized the disk.36 Consider, for example, a clip of the Nixon crowd at Key Biscayne. While we watch them frolicking in the sun, Dwight Chapin, the voice-over on all the clips, narrates: “Now, here we are at Key Biscayne. That’s me, Dwight Chapin, with the camera. We have Dr. Kissinger on the chaise lounge talking to John Erlichman. And in the background is John Elrlichman’s wife, Jean. Everyone loved to relax at Key Biscayne. That’s when we ordered the wiretap on Kissinger’s staff and the press to stop leaks that were taking place from the White House.” What better demonstration could one want of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase—”the banality of evil?” Haldeman may have died a convicted felon with a reputation, in Nixon’s words, of being a “son-of-a-bitch” and the “Lord High Executioner,” but his CD-ROM offers him a rehabilitation different from the one he may have been imagining. “Haldeman,” Newsday enthusiastically declares, “leaves as legacy a milestone in the evolution of interactive multimedia.”37

If CD-ROM can do this much for a book characterized by shallowness, pettiness, and vindictiveness, what about a work that reflects a profound grappling with the most fundamental human and historical problems? To answer that take a look at The Complete Maus, a CD-ROM version of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning comic book about the Holocaust, first published as Maus: A Survivor’s Tale in two volumes in 1986 and 1991.38 Spiegelman explains in the spoken introduction to The Complete Maus that “originally,” he “was interested in doing a CD-ROM because I was under the illusion that a CD-ROM could hold every picture in the Louvre, zillions of things, and that I thought it would become a repository for the thousands of sketches, hundreds of pages of notes, and hours and hours of tapes, and all of that stuff in that one little box.” Although he was soon disabused of this technological fantasy, he remained convinced that the CD-ROM could show “the various layers that went into making Maus.” And Spiegelman and his collaborators at The Voyager Company, particularly producer Elizabeth Scarborough, have exploited the available technology to full effect. The disk provides not just the full version of the two-volume comic book about his father Vladek’s experiences during the Holocaust but also hundreds of his original sketches, including excerpts from his journals and preliminary layouts; two hours of audio interviews Spiegelman did with his father; home videos that he shot with his wife on a 1987 trip to Poland and Germany; audio excerpts from a long interview with Spiegelman about the creation of Maus; dozens of documents that he used in preparing the book; and miscellaneous “supplements” and “appendices” (for instance, a family tree, maps of World War II Poland, the death camps, and of Rego Park, Queens where his father subsequently lived; articles by and about Spiegelman; the 100,000 word full working transcripts of Spiegelman’s interviews with his father; and even Spiegelman’s 1989 Guggenheim fellowship application.)39

Maus starts with the advantage of being built around Spiegelman’s brilliant meditation on the Holocaust and, more generally, on the problems of human memory and dealing with the past. (That Maus is as much about Spiegelman and his father’s troubled relationship as different kinds of Holocaust “survivors” living in the United States as it is about the Holocaust itself justifies its inclusion in a consideration of American history.) The disk version of Maus carefully—lovingly—re-presents the original comic book on the computer, although the translation is not always fully satisfying because current computer screen technology cannot offer the same detailed resolution as a printed book. As a result, the comic page must, in effect, be broken into pieces to fit on a normal computer monitor.40 But if the computer and CD-ROM are less adept at some aspects of visual display than an ordinary comic book, they do offer some advantages that print works don’t. One is the ability to see sketches, drafts, and research materials—to go inside the artist/historian’s workshop and or to take apart Spiegelman’s process of constructing his narrative. It is as if we could read The Making of the English Working Class with E. P. Thompson’s research notes, his earlier drafts, and his later reflections on writing the book at our side. Virtually every page of The Complete Maus offers some glimpse of Spiegelman as craftsperson/historian, but the introduction takes this even further by offering a step-by-step look at how Spiegelman created a single page of Maus. This use of the CD-ROM to show us history as a complex and active process of construction rather than a simple matter of recovering the “facts” is particularly appropriate since Spiegelman’s original comic book is, in part, a reflection on the profound problems of remembering, reconstructing, and re-presenting the past.

This further “layering” on top of Spiegelman’s original narrative takes most compelling form in the additional audio clips of Vladek’s own reminiscences and Art’s comments on the making of the comic that are provided on about half the pages. These voices add an even more complex structure to a work that is already a dialogue between father and son. As Spiegelman recognizes, the addition of two hours of Vladek’s voice alters the balance of power between historian and subject. The opportunity to “find Vladek’s version of an anecdote,” he tells us, means that “rather than having me always win in my discussions with Vladek of how something should be presented,” his father has “the last word” and it is actually “a heard word.”41 Of course, Vladek doesn’t literally get the last word: the final page includes audio clips from both Art and Vladek with Art’s appearing last and including his thoughts on the problem of ending the book and his critical comments about the words from his father that he uses to end the book. But if Art is not entirely prepared to give up authorship to his father, he does cede him a good deal of ground—two hours of Vladek’s voice make him a powerful, haunting presence and a considerably more forceful one than he is in the print comic book. Overall, the addition of the audio as well as the sketches and drafts deepens the consideration of problems that the print comic already poses: how is the past remembered? how are memories transformed into “history?” whose voice should shape the past? what is our relationship to our personal and our collective pasts?

Oddly, even as The Complete Maus brilliantly undercuts the authority of Spiegelman as “the historian” and as the author of “a survivor’s tale”, it also runs the risk of elevating and sanctifying that same authority. By so lovingly and carefully bringing together all of the artifacts surrounding the making of Maus, the CD-ROM can be seen as enshrining Art Spiegelman as an “artist” and Maus as a work of high art. In this way, the CD-ROM becomes a fixed object that Maus aficionados can take as testifying to and embodying Spiegelman’s “genius.” It is not surprising, perhaps, that the CD-ROM had its origins, in part, as a 1992 exhibit on Maus at the Museum of Modern Art. Although I don’t think that this canonization of Maus was the intention of Spiegelman or his collaborators, it is certainly a danger to be considered in a work like this. Perhaps if the disk had also included some voices critical of Maus, some of the tendency toward celebration would have been avoided.42

Whatever its limitations, the great triumph of Maus lies not just in enhancing an existing work of history but even more in adding new layers that make us think more deeply about the meaning and construction of the past. Ironically, in a medium that seems almost allergic to acknowledging “authorship” or to admitting that history is a work of imagination and interpretation rather than a collection of facts, The Complete Maus offers us a work that probes the most important questions about what it means to write about the past. History CD-ROMs, despite the flaws of some of the initial ventures, have already demonstrated that they can provide a convenient way to assemble large quantities of data and to search through and organize that data as well as a means to bring sound and movies into presentations of the past. If they can also, as The Complete Maus suggests, force us to reconsider fundamental questions about historical authority, authenticity, and authorship, then perhaps the answer to the question “can you top this?” might actually be “yes.”

CD-ROMs Reviewed

The African-American Experience: A History
(CD-ROM) 1992. (3.5″ diskette, MS-DOS) 1 CD-ROM and 1 diskette, $129.00.
Globe Book Co.; prod. and dis. by Quanta Press, P.O. Box 8044, St. Paul, MN 55108.

The Archives of History: A Moving-Image Retrospective of the 20th Century
(CD-ROM) 1993. (MAC) 1 CD-ROM, $79.98. MPI Multimedia, 5525 West 159th St., Oak Forest, IL 60452.

Black American History: Slavery to Civil Rights
(CD-ROM), $395.00. Queue, 338 Commerce Dr., Fairfield, CT 06430.

The Complete Maus
(CD-ROM) By Art Spiegelman, prod. Elizabeth Scarborough. 1994. (MAC) 1 CD-ROM, $49.95. ISBN 1-559-40453-1. Voyager Co, One Bridge St., Irvington, NY 10533.

Encarta: 1994 Edition
(CD-ROM) 1994. (MAC, Windows) 1 CD-ROM, $99.95. Microsoft Corp., 1 Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: History Maker
(CD-ROM) By Daniel Schulman. (MAC, MS-DOS) 1 CD ROM with printed guide, $ 54.95. Computer Vistas Unlimited, 13 S. Division St., New Rochelle, NY 10805.

The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House
(CD-ROM) By H. R. Haldeman. 1994. (Windows) 1 CD-ROM, $69.95. ISBN 1-56673-078-3. Sony Imagesoft, 2400 Broadway, Suite 510, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

History of the Blues
(CD-ROM) 1993. (MAC) 1 CD-ROM, $49.95. Queue, 338 Commerce Dr., Fairfield, CT 06430.

JFK Assassination: A Visual Investigation
(CD-ROM) 1993. (MAC, Windows) 1 CD-ROM, $59.95. Medio Multimedia, 2643 151st Pl. N.E., Redmond, WA 98052-5562.

The Oregon Trail
(CD-ROM) 1993. (MAC) 1 CD-ROM, $79.00. ISBN 0-7929-0289-0. MECC, 6160 Summit Dr. N., Minneapolis, MN 55430-4003.

Seven Days in August
(CD-ROM) 1993. (MAC) 1 CD-ROM, $79.95. Time Warner Interactive Group, 2210, Olive Ave., Burbank, CA 91506.

To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films, 1931-1945
(CD-ROM) By Richard Prelinger. 1992. (MAC, Windows) 1 CD-ROM, $29.95. ISBN 1-559-40189-3. Voyager Co., One Bridge St., Irvington, NY 10533.

U.S. History on CD-ROM
(CD-ROM) 1990. (MAC, MS-DOS) 1 CD-ROM with printed guide, $395.00. Bureau Development, 141 New Road, Parsippany, NJ 07054.

The USA Wars: Korea on CD-ROM
(CD-ROM) 1992. (3.5″ diskette, MAC, MS-DOS) 1 CD-ROM and 1 diskette, $70.00. Quanta Press, P.O. Box 8044, St. Paul, MN 55108.

Vietnam Remembered on CD-ROM
(CD-ROM) 1992. (3.5″ diskette, MAC, MS-DOS) 1 CD-ROM and 1 diskette, $70.00. Quanta Press, P.O. Box 8044, St. Paul, MN 55108.

You Can’t Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films, 1946-1960
(CD-ROM) By Richard Prelinger. 1992. (MAC, Windows) 1 CD-ROM, $29.95. ISBN 1-55940-190-7. Voyager Co., One Bridge St., Irvington, NY 10533.

Thanks to Randy Bass, Steve Brier, Josh Brown, Deborah Kaplan, David Thelen, and Andrea Ades Vasquez for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.


1Charles S. White, “Optical Technologies and Hypermedia in Social Studies Education” (unpublished manuscript, 1994, in possession of author); “PC World CD ROM Forum,” PC World (April 1987), 220-31; T. J. Byers, “Built by Association,” PC World (April 1987), 244-51.

2 Laurie Flynn, “CD-ROM’s: They’re Not Just for Entertainment,” New York Times, April 24, 1994, F10; Stephen C. Miller, “A Slow Rise in Magazines on CD-ROM,” New York Times, Sept. 5, 1994, 35.

3 USA Today, April 7, 1994, D1; James Gleick, “The Information Future: Out of Control (And It’s a Good Thing, Too),” The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1994, 55. Another indication of the mania is the appearance of what is probably the first “get-rich-quick” in multimedia book: Carole Marsh, How to Make a Million for the New Multimedia & CD-ROM Market! (Atlanta: Gallopade, 1994).

4 Cliff McKnight, Andrew Dillon, and John Richardson, Hypertext in Context (1991); Jeff Conklin, “Hypertext: An Introduction and Survey,” Computer (September 1987), 17-41. According to Nelson, hypertext is “nonsequential writing–text that branches and allows choices, best read at an interactive screen. . . a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.” In its most general definition, such works as the Talmud and a footnoted scholarly article, which are built on interconnected information that might be read nonsequentially, could be considered “hypertexts.” For a good introduction to “hypertext,” see: George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992). For some brief remarks directed at historians, see Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier, “Historians and Hypertext: Is It More than Hype?” Perspectives, the Newsletter of the American Historical Association, March 1994, 3-6, which includes the Nelson quote.

5 The Journal of American History staff tells me that a recent issue was about 1.25 million bytes in size; that means that more than 500 such issues could fit on a CD-ROM.

6 Journal of American History, 80 (Sept. 1993): 697; 39 (June 1952): 141-42.

7 A fifth possible category–textbooks–probably should be added. But I have not included that because I am myself the co-author (along with Steve Brier and visual editor Josh Brown) of a textbook on CD-ROM, Who Built America? From the Centennial Exposition of 1876 to the Great War of 1914, which was published in 1993 by The Voyager Company. DC Heath has also issued two of its textbooks, The Enduring Vision and The American Pageant on CD-ROM and Harper Collins has a CD-ROM in preparation. Although I felt that it was a conflict of interest to discuss CD-ROMs in this category, I should acknowledge that my own work on Who Built America? has heavily influenced my views on this topic. For a discussion of the production of Who Built America?, see Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier, “Why Read a History Book on a Computer? Putting Who Built America? on CD-ROM,” History Microcomputer Review 9 (Fall 1993): 9-14.

8This is the price listed in Educorp’s winter 1994 catalog, but this disk has often been discounted or been “bundled” with a purchased CD-ROM drive.

9“Social histories” are somewhat harder to find, but it does include W. J. Usery, Jr., and Julius Shiskin’s 1976 Brief History of the American Labor Movement–hardly the best known or most important work on the subject.

10Even as a source for understanding Lossing’s work, Our Country, is problematic, since he died in 1891 and the series was completed by a publisher eager to cash in on his name.

11That this CD ROM only seems to have about 100 megabytes of data (about what one would expect from 1,000 pictures) further suggests that there is no audio, since it would occupy considerable disk space.

12 It might be speculated the publisher’s of Korea simply cut and paste those works out of U.S. History on CD-ROM, which is perhaps fitting given the origins of that work. my lack of confidence in the historical quality of Korea is reinforced by the remarkable “Publishers Note” in which the publisher/author admits that until “a few months ago,” he was only dimly aware that the U.S. had fought a war in Korea in the 1950s.

13This disk also claims to be “multimedia,” but I could not find any sound or film and the amount of space used on the disk makes this unlikely.

14For a brief introduction to how QuickTime works, see David Pogue, “QuickTime: Your First Time,” Macworld, October 1992, 170-76. Version 1.5 of QuickTime expanded its standard window to about 2 3/4″ by 3 1/2 inches and allowed for faster frame rates. On more powerful machines, version 2.0 allows full-screen (640 x 480) video and 30 frames per second. This means that it possible to present something close to what viewers see on television today. The “cost” of this higher quality is that the movie takes up more storage space; thus, reducing the amount of film that a single CD-ROM can hold.

15 Another well-known encyclopedia is Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia from Compton’s New Media. I have also not discussed here the vast quantity of standard bibliographic works–e.g., Dissertation Abstracts–that have now been issued on CD-ROM.

16For a favorable review of History of the Blues, see New Media 4 (March 1994): 58.

17 The closest the disk comes to acknowledging that it might have some earlier origin comes in a apology that worries about a different aspect of the original title: “Queue, Inc. is aware that the politically correct term for Black Americans is African-Americans. However, much of the historiographical material used in this CD pre-dates this term. Also the CD contains several historical documents which are gauged in the language of their day and therefore use terms for African-Americans from earlier time periods. For these reasons some of the language used in recreating the history of African-Americans might be considered offensive.”

18Worse still, some of the quizzes reinforce misleading information that is in the text, for example, the suggestion that the 1957 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts (and not the unmentioned 1965 Voting Rights Act) were the only pieces of legislation, which “enabled blacks to exercise their right to vote.”

19See Macworld, March 1994, p. 92.

20For a brief example of the revisionist interpretation, see Walter LaFebre, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1992 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 218-19.

21MECC, Oregon Trail CD (Minneapolis: MECC, 1993), looseleaf notebook of “product instructions” and “classroom instruction manual,” p. 2.

22Quote from box.

23Quotes from box. For a prominent example of the new Western history, see Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987).

24The Oregon Trail program only occupies 125 megabytes of space on the CD-ROM. One of the odd features of this genre is that its physical size does not, as with a book, give any clue to its length.

25The developers call JFK an “interactive documentary.”

26 Press Release dated November 8, 1993 from Medio Multimedia, Inc., Redmond, Washington.

27As with so many early CD-ROM products, it is difficult to decide who actually is the “author” of this work. No one is credited on the disk itself, although one press account says that Raphael Laderman, a New York software developer created the program. Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 8, 1994. Another sign of the casualness about authorship in this and other CD-ROMS is that the disk does not provide a title page or a complete citation for The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Complete Book of Facts. (It is by James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci and was published in 1992 by Thunder’s Mouth Press.)

28 The JFK assassination is one topic that easily outruns the capacity of a single CD-ROM to provide a comprehensive archive. According to the Assassination Archives and Research Center in Washington, DC, there were by 1993 “more than 2,000 books related to assassinations, intelligence operations and organized crime; 100,000 FBI documents on the Kennedy assassination itself; and another 80,000 pages of records the FBI made available to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s.” David Jackson, “Enduring Intrigue: After 30 years, JFK Sleuths Continue to Stoke the Controversy,” Dallas Morning News, Nov. 21, 1993, p. 1A. Eighty percent figure reported in Deborah Price’s review of Crossfire in Washington Post Book World, Dec. 24, 1989, page x5.

29 Los Angeles Times, Jan. 15, 1992, E3.

30 I have discussed this CD ROM at greater length in History Microcomputer Review 10 (Spring 1994): 33-35.

31 Joseph Gelmis, “Nixon Years on CD,” Newsday, May 20, 1994, Part II, p. B25.

32The “publisher’s prologue” in the CD-ROM says that there are “over 800 photos and more than 60 minutes of video,” although the box gives the lower figures.

33 Stanley I. Kutler, “Et Tu, Bob?” The Nation (Aug. 22/29, 1994), 202.

34Graham has denied the quote, saying “These are not my words and this does not reflect the high view I hold for the nation of Israel and for Jewish people, many of whom are my close friends.” Quoted in James M. Perry, “Book-CD Pairing is Sure to Start a Trend,” San Diego Union-Tribune, June 7, 1994, p. 10.

35Kutler, “Et Tu, Bob?” 202.

36Frank Rich, “Search And Replace,” New York Times, May 29, 1994, Section 4, p. 11.

37Gelmis, “Nixon Years on CD.”

38Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (New York, 1986); Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (New York, 1991).

39I have been greatly aided in thinking about Maus by conversation (and emails) with Josh Brown and by reading his two perceptive reviews of the comic book version: Joshua Brown, “Of Mice and Memory,” The Oral History Review 16 (Spring 1988), 91-109 and Journal of American History 79 (March 1993): 1668-70.

40The spoken introduction to the CD-ROM even includes a section in which Spiegelman complains about the limitation of the computer screen. For the small number of people who own 19-inch or larger monitors, the disk includes an alternative version that allows you to view all pages of the original book at their actual size, uncropped. Actually, the style of drawing in Maus makes it easier to render on the screen than fine line graphic art. For a brief discussion of some of the issues in rendering art on to the computer screen, see Phil Patton, “The Pixels and Perils of Getting Art on Line,” New York Times Arts & Leisure, Section 2, Aug. 7, 1994, 1, 31.

41 Quote from Spiegelman on “page one” of CD-ROM.

42 Spiegelman does, for example, talk about some of the critical reviews his comic book received–particularly in other countries. Why not have included a few of those reviews?


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