The National Geographic Society has packed 109 years onto four slips of plastic. Over 1,300 of those heavy magazines, complete with every word of text, every picture, even every advertisement, is faithfully reproduced on disks with a storage capacity of, respectively, 5.0, 7.4, 8.3, and 3.3 gigabytes each. All that is missing, it would appear, are the folded, detachable maps. The achievement of putting some 2 million pages into electronic form, and doing so in a skilled and convenient way. (If the text appears too light, it can be darkened; and pictures can be darkened; it is possible to search through any DVD for key words on any other DVD.) The price is right.
And yet, with all due respect for the technical accomplishment, the Complete National Geographic suffers from a determination to make the electronic version too faithfully replicate the printed precursor. The text is hard to read. Pictures extend beyond the limits of the screen. There are no hyperlinks or other cross references. The billion-plus words are only images, not searchable text, meaning that other than keywords, it is not possible to plumb the magazine's huge resources. The search provides a guide to concepts and only the most important proper names, not to text strings. "Islam," for example, is listed a mere 259 times, starting in 1909. "Mohammedanism" appears a mere 9 times, all (curiously) between 1938 and 1951. Karbala' appears in just 3 articles and Najaf not a single time. Jerusalem is cited in just 36 articles and Damascus in 8. These limitations make what could be an formidable research tool into an ordinary one.
Still, browsing finds gems, perhaps most of all from the early years. Here is one, dating from November 1901, reporting on the completion of the first section of the Damascus-Mecca railway: "the governor general of Syria, accompanied by sheiks, ulemas, and prominent men of Damascus, boarded the railway carriages, which were decked with Turkish flags, and the train moved off amid the shouts of the enthusiastic Mussulmen". In the December 1946 issue, a male writer implausibly boasts of the waitress in a café in Beirut asking him, "You think me pretty like Venus?"