Books, Lies, and Videotape: How Really Informative ARE the New Media?

copyright 1997 by Historical Novelists Center

As part of the "information revolution" many people are claiming that print is dead, "Gutenberg format" is opposed to the actual practices of the human mind, and that education should rely on film documentaries recorded on tape cassettes or DVDs, computer learning modules on diskettes or CD-ROM, and especially on anything hypertextual.

As any of you on the Internet have probably already discovered, you can spend days hopping links between special interest sites. Often all they do is tell you who is interested in your subject. They rarely actually give you anything solid. Those that do are "libraries on line" -- books that can be read on your monitor screen. See how fast we are Gutenberg again?

Videotapes -- and videotapes transferred to disc -- are a strongly visual medium. If you need visual information -- the lay of the land, the look of the sky and sea, the habitual movement of the natives -- they are excellent. But for historical data, they are usually like looking through a portfolio of art while someone slowly reads the captions out loud from a notebook. For comprehensibility, narration must be spoken more slowly than we rattle conversation. In an hour's videotape very little abstract data can be transferred.

Movies -- film fiction -- are often suspect. Many studios have no concept of authenticity, as costume films traditionally show women in an adaptation of current fashion, at the very least in hair and make-up, worrying more about being attractive than being real. You should not research your novel by reading other novels, but by reading non-fiction. However, on some occasions, a production is so devoted to real authenticity (not publicity outlays), that we include it. Turn off the sound, and watch the costumes and hairdos move in front of the decor. If you are sure you can keep the story from taking over yours, listen to the music and speech.

The most useful tapes are travelogs and re-enactments. When watching travelogs, always remember to allow for changes in the landscape and climate between now and your target period. If you are writing about vikings in Sweden, several city sites were then open water, and some frozen tundras were farm country. Also, a visit to an "ancient farm" may only refer to some place a measley 300 years old.

Re-enactors can bring old paintings to life. You can hear the sounds of armour and horses as the knights charge each other at the joust, you can see the double-puffs of gunsmoke when a line of Revolutionary War soldiers fire their flintlocks. These people are often far more fanatic about detail than most professors writing history books. The problem is, you can't stop the action to frisk someone down and ask what all those doodads are. For that, find a group of re-enactors of your period (note: SCA stands for Society for Creative ANACHRONISM, and, barring some noteworthy exceptions, individuals can be the least authentic and authoritative of Medievalists).

Among the re-enactor tapes you will also find theatre how-tos that can be useful, whether on dance or combat. Again, these provide you with the movement of the period, but it often takes a book to explain what exactly is going on and whether it applies to your period or place. In sum, videotape is secondary, but potentially very illuminating.

Works for laser disc or DVD can move to a higher level. The ability to organize in chapters, and store huge amounts of still photographs can make a good disc the equivalent of a coffee-table book with 1200 pages of images, as well as several short text essays (the talking professor sections). However, these are only available on a limited number of subjects -- we do list them in the bibliographies when we find them. Again, they are visual, and can tell you little more about life in your target period than any collection of paintings.

CD-ROM can be another step up, but often are not. Many are no better than videotapes where you can decide which sections to see in which order. Frankly, most are for children of all ages, "to get them interested in the subject" but unable to inform past the most introductory levels. The idea is that, once interested, you will go get a real book on the subject. They are often filled with cutesy games like Pin the Mask on the Mummy, or Jousting Teddybears. We have never found any better. Someday they may be constructed, but apparently not this decade.

Reference CD-ROM are most informative when they are most Gutenberg -- text-dense. The strength of CD-ROM is to be a database of stupendous proportions with a good search engine that lets you quickly find small pieces of information in a large matrix. The more audio clips and animations a CD-ROM has, the less information can be put on a disc, as these are space-hogs. You would often be better off renting a videotape of the historic speech or event, or listening to an audio tape or CD that contains the full text, not just a clip. They cannot store as much digital information as a videodisc; say, 200 paintings rather than 2000.

A single CD-ROM can usually only replace a single fat book -- quite a space savings, but not necessarily any upgrade in information. A single-disc electronic dictionary is always a collegiate dictionary, never an unabridged (the Oxford English Dictionary takes ten discs, and is available for several hundred dollars). An encyclopedia on a disc is always the equivalent of a "compact desktop encyclopedia," the kind whose two volumes together are little bigger than the hardback collegiate dictionary. This would include such possibly useful packages as The Encyclopedia of Crime and Criminals, or The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The one exception is the Funk & Wagnalls, which rather than being entertainingly multi-media hypertextual is much like a digital microfilm of the book version -- lots of text, a few pictures, beaucoup information.

We would like to note that you can get all the issues of The National Geographic magazine on CD-ROM in the space of ten trade paperbacks, rather than taking up the whole wall. The book-like packaging is pretty, but we have also seen it in a wooden box, just CD-sized, and that's a lot less space. There is a separate set to get what you can almost never find: the loose maps put into most issues on CD-ROM. Three hundred dollars is so very cheap for both of these, as collectors of the old issues will tell you. However, coverage of some subjects is almost nonexistent, others like early humanity, grizzlies, and Mayan sites and culture, are habitual repeaters. It's not an encyclpedia, but it is a library-sized resource reduced to a part of a home bookshelf. But Scientific American and Popular Mechanics, for example, haven't done anything so smart.

The ballyhoo about the alternative media as information sources disguises the fact that they are only revelatory for those people who must listen to narration or watch pictures because their literacy training or general educational background does not let them access the "more difficult" media of traditional writing. That is why these media rarely move above the junior-high/high school level. The skittering paths of hypertext really only suit a user who has not developed the ability to follow a logical track, has no particular goal or question in mind, or has a very short attention span. Even those who are visually impaired usually get more from a book read out loud than from a videotape's narration. As both the blind and the deaf complain, the New Media often requires the user to be able both to hear and to see, or to miss half the message.

The fact remains that print media still have the highest potential for information density. This is especially true when dealing with times and places that were not recorded on film. One good book is worth many movies. Moreover, print can be absorbed at the speed you read, which is usually much faster than narration. You can easily skip around in chapters with the help of an index, to find just what you want. Also, at the present time, the quality of information available on the "alternative media" is patchy and limited:occasionally wonderful, most of the time juvenile. If you are doing research for an historical novel, the new media may sometimes be a valuable supplement, but it cannot form the backbone of research.

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