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Back to the future: The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog.

Back to the Future: The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

The Ultimate Access Service

In 1968, Stewart Brand came up with a revolutionary idea: create the ultimate access service, what he would call a "Low Maintenance, High-Yield, Self-Sustaining Critical Information Service." This idea eventually became The Whole Earth Catalog, an alternative yet essential compendium of useful tools, services, and information covering a broad range of interests. It became an instant classic in the late sixties and early seventies. Four incarnations and a decade and a half later, over 2,500,000 copies had been sold.

The latest version is called, appropriately enough, the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog, and is distributed by Br[phi]derbund Software. What makes the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog interesting from this column's standpoint is that it is a trailblazing model of the marriage between HyperCard and the hot, new information storage medium of the late eighties and early nineties, CD-ROM.

A Perfect Marriage

In addition to incorporating the fabulous reviews of fascinating tools and sources of information that have made the Whole Earth Catalog series legendary, the use of HyperCard as its engine allows the ultimate in cross-referencing through hyperCard's interactive linking functions. The user not only has access to the traditional text and pictures found in the printed versions but not has the added feature of sound as a means of sampling the products within its 413 megabytes of CD-ROM storage. By exploiting the mass storage capabilities of CD-ROM with the flexibility of HyperCard, Brand and company (which included members of the HyperCard Development Team) were able to, in his words, "jam in all the good stuff ... [so] ... the 'book' would fit in a jacket pocket."

And what good "stuff" the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog is. Each entry (over 2,500 in this CD-ROM version alone) contains a brief review by an expert in that subject, extracts (in text, picture, and/or sound) of the reviewed item, and up-to-date information on how and where to get that item.

The catalog also contains over 2,000 digitized images, ranging from cartoons and illustration to photographs. This version also gives the user access to actual sound bites from over 200 recordings, ranging from the spoken word to classical music to blues.

The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog requires HyperCard 1.2 or above (which is supplied in the CD-ROM) and an AppleCD SC CD-ROM drive or 100 percent compatible to operate. To run it, just place the disc in the caddy, put the caddy in the CD-ROM drive's slot, and doubleclick on the "Whole Earth" stack.

Upon opening the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog, the user is initially welcomed by the The Table of Contents card (Figure 1). Four different means of accessing themassive amounts of information contained in the CD-ROM are a mouse click away. Clicking on the Domain name brings you to that domain. Clicking on the Domain icon reveals the Domain contents. You can also search via an extensive Index or via the Quick Search engine.

Access to "Goodies"

Displayed in the the Table of Contents card are thirteen "domains" ranging from Whole Systems to Music. Clicking on the name of the Domain takes you to that domain. Each Domain card, in turn, contains numerous Section titles. Clicking on a section title then brings up a Cluster card containing clusters of articles related to a chosen topic. Clicking on any cluster name reveals the names of individual articles on a specific subject. From there, the user can choose a specific article.

The Article cards contain page turner arrows that allow the user to access the next or previous card of that article. Some cards within an article are called Access cards. Access cards are parts of an article that provide ordering information. In addition, some articles have what are known as Except cards. These contain text, picture, and/or sound excerpts from the reviewed item. Cards with sound clips are indicated by a button represented by a musical notation.

There are other navigation devices besides the ones already mentioned. On the right portion of each card are four buttons. The topmost is the Eart button. This takes the user back to the Table of Contents card. the next is a card button through which the user can move up one full level in the stack hierarchy. Finally, there are the forward and reverse arrow buttons that allow the user to move back and forth between articles.

In addition, there is a pop-up menu button available on most cards. Holding it down displays access paths to various levels or special services available on the CD-ROM. By selecting a particular menu item, the user can skip through different levels within a domain. There is also a direct pathway to the extensive online help system provided on the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog as well as the Index and Quick Search engine.

Depending on the level occupied, multiple card articles can be printed for later review. And if the user is in the Access card, he or she can print out an order form directly to an Image Writer or Laser-Writer. All the user has to do is fill out the quantity of the item he or she wants to purchase; the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog does the rest, filling in the name and address of the vendor, the name of the item, and the price.


A typical search might go as follows. Clicking on the Whole Systems domain name shows the Whole Systems domain card (Figure 2). This card has eight choices available: Space, Gaia, Evolution, Ecology, Cybernetics, Civilization, Plants, and Animals. Choosing Animals shows a Section card which reveals six clickable sections, including one called Birds. Clicking on that reveals three clusters of vendors as well as three cross-references to related vendors. Clicking on one, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, shows an access card plus excerpts from Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds. Clicking on the music button plays a sound clip from A Field Guide to Western Birds (in this case, the mountain chickadee) through the built-in Macintosh speaker.

The Index (Figure 3) and Quick Search engine (Figure 4) allow quick searching on any text string or subject. The Index is a series of twenty-three cards (representing the letters of the alphabet) containing alphabetical lists of all articles to be found in the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog. The Quick Search engine consists of a card that allows searching by subject, title, author, or full text. Furthermore, the user can either search throughout the entire catalog or limit a search to one of the thirteen domains via a pop-up menu buttom. On the right is a subject field listing subject headings plus the number of occurrences of that subject. This changes, of course, depending on whether the search is throughout the entire catalog or restricted to a domain.

Nobody's Perfect

The price of all this mass storage, besides the punishment to the pocketbook or library budget (the retail price of the AppleCD SC drive is $1,299), is its all too noticeable lack of speed. The average seek time of the AppleCD SC drive and its equivalents is around 300 to 500 milliseconds. This may seem speedy to most of you until you realize that medium- to high-capacity hard disks have access times measured in tenths of a millisecond. The 80-megabyte Jasmine Direct Drive hard disk that I use at home has an average seek time of twenty-three milliseconds. This makes the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog a slowpoke, even on a Macintosh Hex with 4 megabytes of RAM. However, this is a small price to pay for the wealth of information contained in it.

If you have or are planning to have a public access Mac in your library acting as a CD-ROM workstation, the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog should be near the top of your "must buy" CD-ROMs. At $149, it's a real bargain for such an information-rich resource.

Bill VAcarro is a social sciences and history librarian at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library in Chicago and co-founder of the Chicago Area Apple User's Group. He can be reached electronically on GEnie: W. Vaccaro; and CompuServe: 76266,147.
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Title Annotation:computer software
Author:Vaccaro, Bill
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Article Type:evaluation
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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