They can also add value by reworking and reframing material. Until now, anybody who wanted to look at old articles in the Times was obliged to crank through grainy rolls of microfilm in public libraries. It's laborious, slow, and gives you a headache that lasts the rest of the day, but it's free. Now News Corporation has invested in The Times Perspectives, a series of CD-ROMs based on the Thunderer's archives. The deal is that News Multimedia (01525 852813, www.newsmultimedia.co.uk) finds articles on selected themes, provides short explanatory paragraphs, adds multimedia embellishments such as video clips, and charges pounds 39.99.
Two of the first four titles, Planet Earth: The Story of Environmental Awareness, and Women's Rights: The Story So Far, present articles dating from the 19th century to the 1990s. These are placed on an equal footing by stripping them of all their original features; they appear as plain text in plain windows. The other two titles, devoted to the two world wars, have more to say about the Times itself during the periods in question.
The treatment of the paper's political role is a highlight of each of the war disks, and is an example of that rarest of species, multimedia writing with teeth. Most devastating of all are the proofs of a detailed report written in 1933 of the brutal regime in the Dachau concentration camp. The piece never appeared in print; it was spiked after a Conservative MP countered it with tales of how the prisoners were played "cheerful music" and Himmler listened attentively to their complaints. The Honourable Member put Jewish claims of atrocities down to "oriental exaggeration".
Much of the period detail is graphic, however, and this is less successful. Having at one stage spent more time than I care to recall looking at newspapers of World War I vintage, including the Times, I'm keenly aware that one learns as much from the context as from the text itself. The layout, the little story below the one you're looking for, the gossip columns; all these convey an immensely strong sense of place, time and mood. There's plenty of spare capacity on each disk: some of it could have been put to good use carrying a facsimile of an entire edition of a contemporary Times.
That might have counterbalanced the shortcomings of a screen, used to frame the archive texts, which lets down a design that is strong and serviceable overall. Details such as the contemporary advertisements look merely whimsical - though at least they are not in the puerile taste of the "help" and "quit" icons, a Red Cross and a white flag respectively.
But the real indignity visited on the transcribed articles is the poor standard of proofreading, which mars fascinating pieces like the loftily contemptuous obituary of Lenin. It suggests that this is yet another multimedia project that had to choose between endless delays and premature release. If you hear a faint rumble of thunder as you run this disk, it's the sound of Times sub-editors turning in their graves.