A Guide to Buying CD-ROMs

Article excerpt

What makes a good CD-ROM product? When there are choices among similar products, what are the characteristics to look for and those to avoid? Once the decision to purchase has been made, where is the product best acquired? In addressing these questions, this column will also discuss a host of design and distribution issues that one would like CD-ROM developers and vendors to address.

PRODUCT CATEGORIES

CD-ROM publishing has become a large and rapidly-growing industry. What is true for some categories of CD-ROM products is distinctly inapplicable to others. The issues are different for an indexing and abstracting service as compared to a collection of reference works on CD-ROM. Multimedia products with a mass market appeal are developed and distributed differently than half-gigabyte collections of electronic clip art.

Understanding the major CD-ROM product categories is the first step in evaluation and purchasing decisions. Here is a list:

Bibliographic Databases: These include indexes to journal articles, often with accompanying abstracts. Most CD-ROM bibliographic databases were originally developed for online access and continue to share most processing steps with data developed for that medium.

Often the publisher of a bibliographic database on CD-ROM builds the database internally and actively markets the title directly to customers. Although a few large whole-salers like EBSCO and Faxon may sell the title to the library market, it is usually not distributed through retail or mail-order computer marketing channels.

Publishers with no interest in developing a CD-ROM version of their databases in-house commonly make them available through large database companies such as DIALOG, Silver-Platter or EBSCO. One major result of this division of labor between database builder and CD-ROM distributor is the emergence of a few widely-used search engines. Without even examining a new SilverPlatter release, one knows what it looks like based on familiarity with the SPIRS (SilverPlatter Information Retrieval System) search engine. This is no small benefit as the number of titles expands, and the novelty of yet another user interface wanes.

Full-Text Journals: While index-and-abstract coverage of journal contents is helpful, it is decidedly less so if the full text of the cited article is not immediately available to an information seeker. Two approaches to remedying the problem have developed.

Some abstracting and indexing services offer, for an additional fee, a version of their database that includes the text portion of referenced articles for a subset of the indexed journal titles. When a user locates a reference indicating full-text availability, the entire article can be viewed by pressing the appropriate key.

While the original text may be sufficient for some purposes, it falls woefully short in others. If photos, graphs and other illustrations constitute a substantial part of the article, the textual content may not be enough. UMI is the leading vendor of image-oriented collections of journal articles. Starting from an index citation, the user can bring up a scanned image of the original article as it appeared on paper and, with a laser printer, create a reasonable hardcopy.

The disadvantages of the image approach are the large number of discs required to store pages in image format and dependence on more expensive hardware--a laser printer for printing and, ideally, a large monitor for viewing pages.

Full-Text Collections: Will the library of the future be on CD-ROM? A company called The Library of the Future thinks so and markets a disc with about a thousand historical and literary works. The Bureau Development Corporation sells a collection of historical documents, a compendium of U.S. Department of Defense Area Handbooks and the entire library of Monarch Notes--each on its own CD-ROM.

Unfortunately, this genre suffers from the peculiar economics of monographic collections on CD-ROM. …