David Rundle surveys the latest multimedia innovations and questions their usefulness to historians
Technophilla, like progress, is a comfortable disease; it is also, as far as I can tell, only mildly contagious. For all the talk of multimedia as a revolution, making knowledge more accessible than ever, there remain many who are uninfected and unaffected. The new technology has been said to involve a `democratising process' but, if this is democracy, it is clearly not for everybody.
Nevertheless, only the flippant would dismiss those who surf the net as merely riding on the crest of a fashion. Both schools and academic research projects are showing that multimedia can be used to good effect. One does not need to be tangled up in the World-Wide Web to recognise that it might provide interesting prospects for the historian.
Multimedia, technophiles say, has three advantages. First, the sheer amount of information available: whole libraries can be called up on a computer screen. Second, the information can be searched with ease: instead of quixotic indexing, the computer can hunt for any word or combination of letters. Third -- and this is why the technology is called multimedia -- the information can be presented with sounds and images as well as text. This ability to entertain as well as inform explains why the new technology is a success in schools.
Multimedia, though, is not one technology but two: CD-Roms and the Internet. CD-Roms have not been the publishing phenomenon that some companies predicted but they do have advantages which suggest that they (or their successor -- DVD or Digital Video Disks are being developed) will not join the catalogue of `flopped innovations'. One is that they are `stand-alone' -- all you need to run one is the appropriate drive on a computer. And, in terms of performance, CD-Roms can provide a combination of sound, text and images faster and with higher resolution than websites. On the other hand, with disks the information is unchangeable -- they cannot, like sites on the Internet, be perpetually revised and updated.
CD-Roms have become particularly associated with the colourful presentation of reference material. Many of these are geared towards history, for example, the current Hutchinson History Library contains six books, including a dictionary of world history, a dictionary of ideas, as well as John Roberts's Shorter History of the World (an expanded version is promised to be out next year). Similarly, Dorling Kindersley (a market-leader in CD-Roms) produces a History of the World package geared to GCSE requirements. However, the best-selling CD-Roms are encyclopaedias like the ubiquitous Microsoft's Encarta and the current market-leader, Encyclopaedia Britannica, which not only provides the entire text of all the volumes on one disk, but in its full version, comes with a disk linking articles to thousands of relevant websites.
Though examples like Britannica demonstrate how CD-Roms and the Internet are intertwined, recent attention has concentrated on the Internet. This is because the net, or World-Wide Web, is an unprecedented form of publishing. Anybody, if they have a modem and the know-how, can create their own web-page, or at least can find and visit any website in the world, for no more than the cost of the phone call for dialling in, or the subscription fee for accessing a particular site. With the attraction of cheap communication, the Internet is not only home to salacious news Stories and glossy advertising -- there is a whole range of sites, institutional, individual and commercial, which could interest the historian.
Libraries are an obvious example of institutions with relevant websites. Some provide not just the catalogue on-line (as in the case, say, of the British Library or Oxford's Bodleian) but also carry exhibitions (the Bibliotheque Nationale de France is now showing manuscript illuminations from `The Age of Charles V'). …