The Canadian Almanac on CD-ROM:
A Good Idea That's Badly Done
The Canadian Almanac and Directory 1995 on CD-ROM
Canadian Almanac and Directory Publishing Co. Ltd., $299.00
Reviewed by Bret Dawson
Every day, the World Wide Web grows more comprehensive and more
useful. Governments post the names of their representatives and
civil servants, cities offer population figures, and one directory
after another assembles helpful lists of E-mail addresses and phone
numbers. Give it two or three years, and it'll be the ultimate all-in-one
But right now
well, things aren't quite as complete as they
should be. Want a complete list of Canadian mayors? Looking for
a phone number for a Lethbridge ciy councillor? No dice.
That kind of information is just what The Canadian Almanac and
Directory on CD-ROM is for. It's loaded with the minutiae of
Canadian politics, business, and media. But for a few flaws in the
execution, it would be a must-have disc. Unfortunately, those flaws
in the execution are pretty huge.
The disc's "image bank" contains a collection of pictures
and charts: graphs measuring economic progress, political maps,
and so on. These would be extraordinarily helpful, except that accuracy
is a huge problem. For example, South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth
in May of 1994. This was a reasonably high-profle event, but the
Almanac still somehow managed to miss it. The image bank's
Commonwealth World Map has left out South Africa entirely.
The media sections are similarly unreliable. Nearly every publication
in the country is included, and each one of them is filed by subject.
This is also a good idea, but it too is poorly done. This Magazine,
for example, is, depending on your point of view, either a clear-headed
journal of progressive politics, or a snotty lefty piece of trash.
But it is certainly not a sports-and-leisure guide. Unfortunately,
that's just how the Almanac describes it.
These are minor quibbles, certainly. But as I spot one glaring
error after another after another, I find it tougher and tougher
to stay enthusiastic about this disc. After all, a reference guide
is nothing if its users can't trust it to be accurate.
The Almanac runs on MS-DOS, Windows, and the Macintosh,
and its look-and-feel is quite similar from one platform to the
next. It's text-heavy, and the search screens are packed with lists
and choices. The presentation is attractive and colourful, though,
and quite comfortable to look at. Unfortunately, the user interface
is a mess. The online help is vague and obtuse, and what should
be simple searches are very difficult to perform. An example: I
decided that I'd like to see a list of Saskatchewan MLAs. At the
first search screen, I got a list of choices: government, arts,
and so on. I chose "government". Then I was asked to choose
from another list of categories. Then another list. In each case,
I looked at the list and guessed which one was most appropriate.
After fifteen minutes of trying and backtracking, I gave up. I would
have been easier to call the Saskatchewan legislature and ask them
to read me the list over the phone.
This is the sort of thing that computer geeks like to call a "steep
learning curve". Under some circumstances, a challenge of this
sort can be a lot of fun. But when a quick-reference tool actively
frustrates an attempt to actually look something up, it's time for
I don't doubt that the database in this disc is a treasure-chest
of information. In print, the Canadian Almanac has more than
proven itself. But this disc is a clunker. Save your money.
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