CD-ROM and DVD

As with many new technologies in the computer world, the advent of the CD-ROM was greeted with great enthusiasm as the solution to large-scale publishing projects. Almost all personal computers being manufactured and sold today carry CD-ROM drives, thus creating a huge "installed base" of potential users. CD-ROMs are particularly well-suited to information that requires large storage capacity, high-quality images, and uninterrupted access. This includes color, large software applications, graphics, sound, and especially video, and because they can run at the optimal operating speed of the host computer, they are much better media for multimedia projects than the World Wide Web, which continues to encounter both slowdowns of file access from servers and delivery over standard telephone lines, redraw and other screen imaging bottlenecks on host computers with slower processing speeds and capabilities, and an overcrowded and increasingly commercialized interface and web culture.

Another benefit of the CD-ROM is its very individuation: the author and publisher can write, edit, produce, price, market, and distribute CD-ROMs in much the same way as books: as discreet, individual units. The buyer - reader, researcher, or library - can then purchase a distinct unit that offers a comprehensive treatment of a single subject. Problems of web transmission are eliminated, since CD's reside on the reader's host computer, and users lose the sense of urgency and frustration of using often unreliable "online time" for reading a title. An e-book on CD-ROM can thus be left on the reader's laptop or desktop computer and returned to, like a book, as the need and opportunity arises. The act of reading, while still screen-bound, far more closely resembles that of the book: the distinct unit of information, narrative, and art, that the user possesses and can return to again and again in privacy and at one's own pace.

There are certain disadvantages of CD-ROM based projects, however. The author is generally limited to the 650 MB limit per disk, which though usually more than enough for the normal monograph, is insufficient to hold a very large number of high-resolution images, and incapable of storing the enormous digital archives that are currently being created by historians. The publisher must still invest in the manufacturing, storage, and distribution of book-like units, which are far more fragile that books, and whose life-span is now estimated at between 10 and 25 years and thus must be updated for both data storage and retrieval and to meet the demand of new computer technology as it evolves. The reader must also store and handle the CD-ROM with far more care than the print book and must insure that his or her computer system keeps up with the technology for reading the latest CD-ROMs. Most objections to CD-ROMs come from staff at major research libraries, who strongly object to the difficulty of handling, cataloging, storing, and tracking use and location of these relatively small units.

With the advent of CD-ROMs writers and publishers experimented with a wide variety of authoring and distribution models. Perhaps the most famous of the CD-ROM book publishers was Voyager, which issued a wide variety of film, digital library, and reference collections. In the late 1980s and early 1990s many publishers persuaded bookstores and chains to set aside distinct sections especially for the CD-ROM. But many problems arose with this arrangement: storage and display were problems; and customers were usually unable to adequately sample the CD-ROM. After several years of experimentation, nearly all bookstores abandoned their CD-ROM sections; and publishing in CD-ROM was gradually restricted to several categories: children's titles, instructional/reference works, games, and adult entertainment. The fact that many print publishers also include CD-ROM's along with textbooks, manuals, and children's books has also tended to make the CD-ROM appear less like a serious publishing endeavor and more like traditional print ephemera.

Nevertheless, many very important and serious projects continue to be produced on CD-ROM. Such large chains as Barnes & Noble offer special sections devoted solely to e-books on CD-ROM, as do Amazon.com and other Internet stores. These display the disks and present detailed descriptions for potential buyers. Print and online journals and media continue to review CD-ROMs with enthusiasm. Many of the University Presses participating in the History E-Book Project publish very high-quality reference works on CD-ROM, such as the OED, ANB, The Franklin Papers, and Granger's Index.

With the widespread manufacture of DVDs and computers that can read this format, the possibilities for storage on disk has been increased manyfold. From a minimum of 4.7 GB to a current maximum of 17 GB of storage capacity - larger than the hard-drive capacity of most currently owned desktop computers - DVDs offer the capacity to store between 1.9 million and 7.3 million pages of ASCII-formatted text.