Multimedia Review:
Perseus and Who Built America

Tracy Seneca
LIS 296A


For the multimedia review, I chose to look at Voyager's Who Built America CD, and the Perseus: Interactive Sources and Studies in Ancient Greece disk. I found them to be dramatically different; I vastly preferred the voyager program. To some degree, my preference is influenced by the subject matter, as I find American History more engaging than ancient Greek vases, but for the much of the distinction lies in the presentation of each program.

I began by looking at Perseus , though in two hours, I had less than an hour to actually examine the program, and had to return later to look again. The installation process is prohibitively complicated, far too complicated for comfortable use in a library setting, in my opinion. Users must to some degree reinstall the program each time it is used. Because software is so malleable, users can accidentally delete the files neccessary for running Perseus . In order to look at Perseus the first time, hypercard had to be reinstalled on the terminal, having been deleted or moved by the previous user. Even under the best of circumstances, the settings for the laser disk player need to be reset each time Perseus runs. I think it is too much to force library users to identify the machines they are using; they should be able to focus on the material. One way around this would be to train the students at the desk to install Perseus each time someone requests it - a problem in a setting where the student is alone at a possibly busy desk. Fortunately for the student employees, Perseus is only rarely requested.

According to the staff at the Media Resources Center, the only people who request Perseus are Library School students. This presents another problem. Because of the technical requirements of these programs, they are kept in the area of the library where the machinery is available. This makes the material less accessible to the people who might be interested in the content of these programs rather than their format. Perseus might be more useful if it were available in the Art History/Classics library, but because of budget constraints, that library cannot afford to duplicate the equipment that is available in the Media Resources Center.

Storing Perseus in a different area of the library might make it more potentially useful, but would not make it any easier to use. I found this CD to be terribly frustrating, and very difficult to navigate. The idea, with hypercard, is for the user to be able to navigate by whatever path s/he chooses. In my case, the path that I almost always want to take is to branch away from a document or list, then return to it. That is, as I read through, and see some of the links that are available, I want to answer some tangential question, then pick up where I left off. When there are multitudes of links made available, sometimes I wound up a few or several steps away from where I started before it was time to return. Returning was almost never possible. One could either only move laterally or get booted back to the welcome screen of the program. A simple backtracking approach was seemingly not possible.

The creators of Perseus claim that the database is aimed both at the beginner and the expert in Greek Studies. I felt that with the small amount of classics that I have taken that I would qualify as a beginner. Rather than to meander aimlessly around the database, I decided to approach it with a question in mind. I decided to look into the mythological inventor of music, Orpheus. First I tried to find artistic representations of Orpheus, so I searched under Art and Architecture. This segment of the database is definately geared to the expert - not the beginner. I never found a way to search the images available in Perseus by their subject. I could search scuptures by the name of the sculptor or pottery by their vase type classifications, and many other options, all of which I feel required a great deal of expertise to understand.

I then tried a search in the encyclopedia, where I assumed I would look under "orpheus" retrieve a number of headings, then get to the encyclopedia entry. Not so. I was never able to get to an encyclopedia entry from the list of results. The results were, in fact, reference to some of the original material. For example:

- his music Apollod.vol.1.19
- invents mysteries of dionysius Apollod.vol.1.19

In order to read these references, I had to exit the encyclopedia, go into the original texts, and search through Apollodorus, vol. 1 for some mention of Orpheus. Apollodorus, I might add, was pretty thick material for a beginner, and was itself mostly references to other works.

My last approach was to use to search the complete text for all instances of the the word "orpheus". I got a couple dozen results, and I was allowed to go directly from the reference to the text itself. Once there, however, I could not easily get back to the list of references. The list provided no context to the results, so I could not tell which results were useful.

I found the limitations of this database to be the most outstanding feature of using it. Even the 112 page book of instructions did not help me. The images available were nice, but no more remarkable than a well designed book of illustrations, even with the laser disk, they provided nothing that a book could not have provided.

Having been disappointed by Perseus , I was delighted to find that Who Built America was excellent; it far exceeded my expectations. I had seen this demonstrated in last term's presentation from Voyager, and liked it then. Having looked more closely at it, I'm convinced that multimedia does potentially offer a level of communication that cannot be conveyed in print, and that for some purposes, such as this history book, the format is ideal.

The printed guide for Who Built America was not available at the time I used it, and it was not neccessary. Navigation was simple enough that I needed no instructions, and rarely had to be distracted from the content in order to deal with manuevering through the program. I appreciated the straightforward approach that this CD has. I have seen some CDs which function like bad PBS shows, with a distracting narrator, and reenactments of various scenes from the text. Most of the sound and all of the film that I found here was primary material. The sound, image and film available did more than to provide interesting tangents or to keep my interest level up, these aspects of the CD sometimes altered my expectations of what a textbook could do. For example: included in one section was an interview, an oral history with George Kills in Sight, a native american whose grandfather was with Crazy Horse when he died. George sounded to be about 90, and was moving pretty slow. He recounted the story his grandfather told him about the circumstances of Crazy Horse's death, and how the Indians carried his body with them for a month before the secretly buried him. What the sound provided that the text could not was the background noise of women talking, children playing and dogs barking. These sounds added another level to the text; listening to this, I realized that this man could be anyone's next-door-neighbor. The background noise of this interview put American History in a different context, and reinforced the tone of the book, which is focused on the roles of ordinary people in all walks of life in shaping American History.

I did not approach this CD with a specific question, and I wish I had, in order to compare it more carefully to Perseus . I did find the sheer volume of sidebar material to be something of a double edged sword. It was so easy to go off on a tangent, that I found myself getting confused as to what I was reading about. But the material was well-chosen and interesting, and I didn't mind the wandering approach. I found myself wanting to have this at home in order to eventually look at the whole thing.

Looking back over my notes, almost every comment I had about this CD pertained to the subject matter - to the meaning of the material that I found there, which in itself says something about how well this was designed and arranged. The only glitches I noticed were minor. When listening to sound, the text appeared on the right side of the screen (very helpful for the George Kills in Sight interview). The text often took up several pages, and one had to turn the page to keep reading along. This produced a sound rather like an 8 track cassette that switched tracks in the middle of a song. The sound often cut off a line or two before it was done. I also found large images that were hard to alter, I couldn't get the entire image to display, and did not have scroll bars to see what was beyond the edge of the window.

Still, these were minor problems, and I will certainly be spending some of my spare time at the Media Resources Center looking more closely at this CD. Having spent a good deal of this term instructing History 7B students about the distintions between primary and secondary material, I do wish that this had been available sooner. I do hope that I will be able to use it in my library instruction in the future.

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