Vol. VIII, No. 3

November, 1995

Canada's Visual History/L'Histoire du Canada en Images - A Review

by H. Eiteljorg, II

Canada's Visual History/L'Histoire du Canada en Images, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the Canadian Heritage Information Network. Based on Canada's Visual History, by the National Film Board of Canada and the National Museum of Man. ISBN No. 1-55041-222-1; requires Windows, $100.

It is always difficult to review a CD-ROM that is not a straight-forward reference work. One does not start at the beginning and read through the entire CD as one would a book; so there is always a risk of incompleteness and resulting inaccuracies. The parts should not stand for the whole, but they inevitably must.

In addition, navigation through a CD and all its data encourages a relatively unsystematic approach; so one may easily miss threads that might tie things together,

In the case of the CD reviewed here, Canada's Visual History/L'Histoire du Canada en Images, these problems are exacerbated by a CD which seems itself to be unsystematic and incomplete. Perhaps that is because the CD is only a new form for an existing 80-volume collection. The project was conceived as a paper publication, not as a presentation on computers, much less on a single CD.

As seems not to be unusual with CD presentations, there is no introduction to the whole that would unite its elements, no explicit unifying theme, no explanation of the reasons for the topics covered. The user must simply dive in to the individual pieces and, consequently, feels very much like one of the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. Not surprisingly, therefore, the strongest impression of this presentation is that it lacks focus - so much so that it is even difficult for me to describe it. It is a collection of images and short essays about 80 topics in Canadian history. I believe that, in fact, the images are the subject, and the essays, called introductions, are meant only to provide a bit of information and to give the images some points of focus. The range of topics is very broad - from "Marriage Furniture of Quebec" to "Lumbering on the Ottawa Valley" to "Blacks in Atlantic Canada" to "Ontario Prehistory" to "Canada and the Boer War." Each topic has its own set of images, its own author for the introduction, and its own list of suggested readings. Each, of course, is available in French and English. As one might expect, the fact that there were so many individual authors has made for a certain unevenness in the text. I found the piece, "Poverty in Montreal," by Terry Copp, to be both well written and well researched, but some others seemed remarkably dull recitations of facts, with neither life nor interest.

But the images are the real subjects. Some of the best were old and unexpected photographs from the nineteenth century with telling details; most of the recent photographs were also of high quality, but that is to be expected with modern materials. A few of the older photographs were less successful on the computer screen, especially when compared to the impression one has when face-to-face with a good, old photograph, but most of the images were excellent. (Note that I had to adjust my monitor to obtain good results with the images. The brightness level I prefer for text yields washed-out, dull images. No single setting seemed to work best for all the images.)

The maps and diagrams, however, were a disappointment. All the ones I saw were poor, some remarkably so. Presumably, they had been designed for display on paper; they seemed too small, and I found them to be unclear, sometimes confusing, and usually ugly.

The design of the overall data-and-interface system is interesting and, in some ways, quite effective. An introduction to the system design is needed, though; otherwise only the help files explain the way the parts of the system work together, insofar as they do work together. Each of the 80 introductory essays can be viewed in its own window, with an illustration on one side of that window and the text on the other. When reading the essay, there is a single illustration that remains on the left as one scrolls through the text. If images are called up, they take over the left side of the window, while descriptions of them take over the right side. Double-clicking the illustration will bring up an enlarged version (no larger that a size appropriate for a VGA screen). Unfortunately, the introductory essay is not connected to the illustrations; so one does not see the illustrations while reading an appropriate portion of the essay. (It is possible, however, to have two windows open at once, and both can refer to the same essay; thus, I could arrange the essay in one of the windows and the illustration in the other, but that is not a very useful solution without access to a very large monitor - larger than the 17-inch model I was using.)

Designed into the system are no explicit links between illustrations and text, between illustrations, or between text segments. However, there is a good search routine that will find words (with Boolean searching possible). Unfortunately, that search process shows no overview of the findings; so one cannot choose which occurrence of the word or phrase to examine. Instead, each must be examined in sequence. Furthermore, the system searches only the descriptions of the illustrations, not the essays, proving the primacy of the images in this work.

There is also a good index, with helpful sub-categories, and one may easily search for references to index categories or sub-categories. Once again, the index leads only to the descriptions of the images, not the text. In this case, however, there is an overview of the references found through an index search. So one need not examine all of the information found, item by item.

Text selections and images may be saved to disk or printed. All in all, this is an interesting but very uneven production. Especially given the reasonable price for the number of images included, the old photographs and the other images will make it worthwhile for many; they are, after all, the core of the production.

For an index of other CD and Web site reviews available on the Web pages of the CSA Newsletter, see the review index.

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