Around the world in 108 years of words and pictures

The `National Geographic' has been captured on CD-Rom. The set of 30 disks contains the complete archive of a magazine noted since 1888 for its sumptuous photography and scientific accuracy - and also gives intriguing insights into the history of advertising.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In many respects, the production of a complete archive of National Geographic magazine is what CD-Roms were made for. One of the original uses of the medium was simply to gather huge textual libraries together in one place, so that researchers could access vast quantities of locally stored data as quickly and easily as possible.

National Geographic, of course, is more than just a textual database. The 30 CD-Roms that make up the complete set of disks contain scans of every one of the 175,000 published magazine pages, including the photographs that help to give National Geographic its world-wide reputation.

It also includes, and indexes, all the advertising that has appeared over 108 full years, since 1888. Larry Lux, senior vice-president at National Geographic Interactive, rates the archive of adverts as one of the more fascinating parts of the collection. "Advertising provides an interesting look at how society and culture change over the years," he says, "and shows how technology has moved on, too. Kodak, for example, started advertising in 1906, and you can follow the development of their products through their ads."

It took about a year to scan every page cover and advert in the National Geographic canon. Lux laughs as he talks about some early setbacks. "Before starting work, the scanning company needed to know how many pages they had to deal with," he says. "Nobody at our end knew, so the National Geographic employed someone simply to count all the pages in all the magazines."

Soon it transpired that even the National Geographic library didn't have every copy of every issue, so they set out on a hunt of book sales and collectors' fairs to find the missing issues.

The National Geographic Society was founded as a non-profit-making institution in the late 1800s by a group of eminent scientists, explorers and other community-minded people who wanted to foster public education about the world and its infinite variety.

The aims of the society were always to support research, exploration and education, and income continues to be poured into these activities, albeit often with a more technological bent than the founders could ever have imagined.

In the early Sixties,the company started up a television division to make documentary films; and two years ago, the interactive division was set up. Besides this CD-Rom set, the division runs a popular Web site and has several plans in the pipeline, including some work with the Microsoft Network.

The core work continues amid all this high technology. The foundation supports teacher training programmes, provides educational materials, and funds larger academic research projects. A major expedition at the North Pole has just come to an end, and a new one focusing on the Inca Andes in Peru is about to begin.

For such a philanthropic organisation, pounds 199 may sound like a lot to charge for a multimedia product, even for one with 30 disks. But according to Larry Lux, this price has been carefully set to allow the product to recover its costs and feed a little into ongoing work. And the Decades disks, which bring together the National Geographic in 10-year spans, are intended, in part, to allow individuals to build their own complete collections over time, as finances allow.

`The Complete National Geographic' (pounds 199 for full set, pounds 29 per decade disk), is published by Mindscape (01444 246333).