The browse factor is of major importance in CD-ROMs, especially when it comes to encyclopedias and other reference works. Part of what makes digital media magical is the ability to jump around, following at whim the many links a good informational CD-ROM provides.
More to the point, I've never met anyone who actually enjoys reading long passages of uninterrupted text from a computer screen.
That's why it's especially pleasurable to browse through "Her Heritage," a biographical encyclopedia of noted American women on CD-ROM. Just a quick tour of the disk reveals some gems. For instance, long before she wrote her most famous book, "Little House on the Prairie," Laura Ingalls Wilder held a job that most likely no longer exists in American journalism--at the St. Louis Star, she was the poultry editor.
Tennis star Alice Marble reached the height of her fame in the 1930s by winning the Triple Crown (singles, women's doubles, mixed doubles). Far less well known is that because of her international contacts, she worked as a spy for U.S. Army Intelligence during World War II, almost losing her life during a mission in Switzerland.
Blues singer Alberta Hunter, who had starred on Broadway, in nightclubs, on radio and on stages throughout Europe, was so desperate for work in the mid-1950s that she returned to school to become a nurse, never telling her medical colleagues of her earlier fame until she was "rediscovered" at the age of 82.
In all, there are 1,000 short biographies of women on "Her Heritage,' a CD-ROM that works on both Macintosh and Windows platform computers. It's the first product produced by Pilgrim New Media, a Boston-based group that specializes in "women's heritage" multimedia. The disk is nicely designed and includes photos of most of the entries and some videos, including ones of Agnes de Mille and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Some of the women included on the disk are famous, such as Amelia Earhart, Amy Tan, Rosa Parks, Lucille Ball, Annie Oakley and Martina Navratilova. But the vast majority of artists, explorers, writers, entertainers, educators, politicians, scientists and sports figures mentioned are well known only within their own fields. Discovering them makes for enjoyable browsing.
There's pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, who coined the term "bug" as a moniker for computer glitches, and Gertrude Caroline Ederle, who in 1926 not only proved wrong the prevailing opinion that a woman couldn't swim the English Channel, she also did it with a time that beat the world record. And in entertainment, one of the most notable bios is of vaudevillian Nora Bayes, who made "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" a popular song.
Although the bios are fairly short (Navratilova's, at about 550 words, is one of the lengthier ones), editor Robert McHenry has included enough offbeat facts to keep it lively.
Also admirable is that "Her Heritage" neither strives to present an unrealistically rosy picture of its subjects, nor shies away from issues that some might consider touchy in a work that is in large part targeted toward young people. An excerpt from the entry on computer scientist Hopper reads: "known for her unorthodox, blunt style, and smoking unfiltered cigarettes, she once called the women's movement 'tommyrot and nonsense.' "
And in the Navratilova entry, it mentions that "she was one of the first sports superstars to live a publicly gay lifestyle" (a rather odd way of saying she is openly gay, but it's the thought that counts).
There are some curious omissions. In entertainment, singers Diana Ross and Madonna are left out, as is artist Alexis Smith, to mention a few. But all in all, this is a most enjoyable disk. Company representatives say it is available mostly in the large bookstore chains at about $30.
* Cyburbia's e-mail address is David.Colker@latimes.com.