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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 reference tool.

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 a redesign.

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.

Published in Sources, Number 38.

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