A highly personal overview on Hungarian CD-ROMs

by Zsuzsanna Tószegi

Mankind is the measure of all things.

Thirteen years ago postgraduate students majoring in library and information science at a university in Budapest attended a class where the lecturer spoke about a wonderful new type of technology. This new source was constructed to use a special ray of light, or laser - instead of magnetism - to record and retrieve information. Some of the students believed - and others not - that with the help of this technique, one-thousand times more information could be recorded on a new data carrier than on a floppy disc. Most of these students weren't familiar with regular floppies either. As a matter of fact, students registered for this course were able to believe such news about fascinating technological innovations and they eagerly awaited the miracle. They didn't believe that they would be able to use personal computers in the near future and enjoy all possibilities that a PC could give. Only a few people expected the PC to be an irreplaceable help in work, or to be a primary source of living. The news regarding the personal computer was filed away along with other such news that Hungarians could only envision at that time: could we live until that day!

A few months later the news spread like wildfire: the first laser discs had seen the light in labs, and they were indeed able to record sound, data and texts of excellent quality. The silver disc, that was called a CD-ROM and measured 12 centimetres in diameter, had an unbelievable capacity; it could even hold two hundred thousand pages together with indexes that helped retrieval. It sounded astonishing that a single disc could hold 500 megabytes of information, while an AT Winchester with considerable capacity could hold only 40 megabytes. The year it all developed was 1986.

And then suddenly everything changed: the Hungarian National Library purchased the first PCs, on which it was possible to record data. Librarians were freed from filling sheets of paper - work that was extremely time consuming. But they had to pay the price: they needed to learn DOS commands, the tricks of data recording, and how to use the CD-ROM reader. In 1988, the miracle happened: a large, flat, grey box that needed to be connected to the computer in order to read a CD-ROM was borrowed from the Library of the Academy of Sciences. Users experienced how information could be retrieved from all volumes of Dissertation Abstracts within seconds.

It wasn't necessary to wait long for the latest wonders: the first Hungarian developed CD-ROMs were introduced in 1990, only a few years after the world premiere. Everything was gradually coming together: the goal was established, some databases were completed and -- the most important factor -- there were imaginary, creative experts. The realisation was greatly supported by the financial support of the government that helped with the registration of CD-ROM technology. This financial support was aimed partly at the manufacturing of compact disks and partly at content improvement. The factory that used cutting-edge technology started to operate in December 1998 in Székesfehérvár. According to limited reports being circulated, the factory was fully automated, and the machines that workers used didn't simply copy the disks, but they also produced master disks. This was the very first factory in the world that introduced an international identifying coded system to prevent the publication of bootleg CD-ROMs. It was an unforgettable experience to personally visit the factory. Everything we saw inside supported our understanding that big things were happening here: the sterile circumstances, the personal wearing in protective clothes and masks, working with very precise, calms movements in the cold silence. These factors, together with the complete observance of environmental laws, all helped us understand the importance of the developments. There is an old truth: only that can be really good which is nice. This truth was strengthened by the modern building and disks themselves. The unbelievably thin silver disks held more innovative and more interesting contents day by day.


Interestingly enough, after publishing the very first two disks, almost a yearlong break happened. However, starting from 1992, a wide range of CD-ROMs was published. It was a remarkable experience to do a search in the first full-text database that was -- what else could it be? -- The Bible. We could see all the descriptions of a word "female species" and we got to know how we could retrieve the very best expressions of the archaic Hungarian language. On the very first multimedia disk that introduced Hungarian political figures between the Second World War and the change of the regime, the video recording wasn't a good quality but even so, it was great to get to know the voices of the pre-1956 era. (We became acquainted with the voices of the people's suppressers, their styles of speech and the tone of the news of the same time period.)

1993 was the year of the break through, and many domestically developed disks were introduced into the market. Everyone was talking about CD-ROMs. It was being said that the Armageddon had arrived and that the Gutenberg Galaxy was over. Others said that this new information provider would help us preserve cultural values. At CD-ROM presentations, lecturers were supposed to state that these magic disks were not intended to replace fiction books. Indeed, they may not be read in bed or the bathtub, but it is so much easier to find data or quotations on the computer than to find them in a huge encyclopaedia or by turning the pages of books.

A chaotic situation arose that didn't help the favours of this new source: virtually anyone who collected the money to cover manufacturing expenses and the content to be held in the disk could be a CD publisher. "Gathering together" should be meant in its literal meaning. The centuries of book publishing and its regulations system didn't apply to the CD-ROM market. Among the CD-ROM publishers were huge database owners at the State Office of Statistics and Patents, as well as the National Library and the Library of the Parliament. In addition to huge firms, minor firms were also present at the beginning of the flourishing of the CD-ROM market. Some of these minor companies have become the biggest CD-ROM publishers in the last six or seven years.

In 1993 and 1994, the carrier of the World Wide Web began, enormously changing the way of using computers. Many people worked to make the Internet as free as possible and to provide unlimited access. These individuals spared neither time nor exhaustion. They wanted the widest public to use the Internet for their own purposes and to enjoy it. Trade sanctions that were present in the traditional market of printed documents like copyrights were eliminated in the market of the Internet. Furthermore, a virtual laurel wreath was given to the ones who put as many things as possible on the Internet. This attitude which was sometimes ideologically explained was also present at certain CD-ROM publishers: some of them didn't even think about asking permission to publish a text, a picture, or an audio recording, or to pay copyrights.

Naturally, everything has changed when the huge information providers stepped into the market of the Internet and CD-ROMs. These companies were able to protect their interest. These professional companies wrote the new laws of the business era because they wanted to increase the number of users. Moreover, they wanted active users who also contributed to the common wealth of the information era to be replaced by passive consumers who wanted to have fun. Even more damage was done by those who put together disks in the hopes of good business, publishing poor quality goods very quickly. Those who were interested in this new data-providing source were also willing to buy the poor quality disks. It was very harmful for the really qualified, high-quality CD-ROMs.

The newcomer to CD-ROMs was hardly accepted by the national bibliographical systems that were meant to register documents. In the beginning these systems were not even able to handle the CD-ROMs. International standards were born after a huge delay and on top of this delay, the ones who created the standards stuck with the old clichés that had been applied to printed documents. The Hungarian National Bibliography started to register CD-ROMs after a few years delay, only registering the ones that were possible to perceive as books or periodicals. It was easy to understand that if data collection of works published in the new media doesn't begin in a timely fashion, then these works would fall out forever from the nation's memory.

In 1993, I started to collect data on CD-ROMs that were extremely popular among the public. First, a journal entitled Új Alaplap ordered an analysis on domestically developed disks, and then a leading daily newspaper, Népszabadság, ordered a lengthy article on CD-ROMs. Then a quarterly published periodical journal was published in which I introduced most of the Hungarian CD-ROMs.

In 1995, we had data of 70 domestically produced CD-ROMs; in August 1999, this number has increased to 700. The "Discography of Hungarian CD-ROMs" gained an increasing popularity: almost 14,000 people checked the list on the Internet within the last eighteen months. Some statistical data was collected; the most surprising aspect of this data is that only 5.3% of the old CDs were intended for children. More than half of the CDs are related to educational curriculum, or at least they serve or aim at developing abilities. In addition to a few fairy tales and other fictional works or adaptations of poems, they serve the minors.

Subject areas
Language studies and dictionary 23.3%
Amusement and games 15.2%
Computer science 11.9%
Literature, history 9.2%
General encyclopaedias, bibliographies 6.6%
Public information (phonebooks, maps) 6.6%
Economics, financial, statistics 4.5%
Tourism 4.5%
Chemistry, Biology, Medicine 4.4%
Arts 2.6%
Architecture 2.2%
Law 2.2%
Math, physics 1.8%
Geography 1.4%
Patents, standards 1.3%
Others 1.3%
Politics, social concerns 1.0%

Division of languages used:
1 language used 69.2%
Bilingual 24.9%
Trilingual 2.6%
4 or more languages used 3.3%

Typological division of CD-ROMs
Multimedia 46.5%
Full text 18.5%
Text and pictures 14.3%
Databases or address directories 10.2%
Text and audio-recording 3.2%
Video (MPEG) 2.6%
Bibliography 2.4%
Maps 2.3%

I'm thankful that I was able to live through the experience of CD-ROMs being born. Here in the middle of Europe, living in a small country bearing a special native language, it meant a lot to experience that creativity with which Hungarians adopted the PC and the CD-ROMs, and made them serve the dissemination of cultural values. Not a week went by when I wasn't invited to a press conference or wasn't asked to give a lecture or wasn't sent to the introduction of a new disk. I lost count of how many reviews I wrote about disks, or how many I introduced in the press, radio, television, or public lectures. Although I had no relation to the business success of CD-ROMs, I strove to write good things about the disks to present their values because it is my belief that no criticism should be given to the very first initiation of a new media. After a while, my situation has eased: I allowed myself to review only high-quality disks.

 Contents of Béla Bartók CD-ROM

There were CD-ROMs that were highly publicised, such as the disk presenting Béla Bartók's life, which was compiled by a famous Bartók researcher, György Kroó. The disk gives a faithful portrait about Bartók, whose career is introduced in the mirror of documents about his life from the beginning until he voluntarily emigrated to the United States. When music interpretation is needed to understand the documents better, sound recordings can be played. In order to have a voluminous view paired with remarkable achievements, the disk's presentation was authored by art directors, who not only designed beautiful layouts, but also created visual structures to help navigate in the database.

There were opinions voiced that the disk contains too much text and too little music, despite the fact that more than three hours of music were included, in addition to thousands of pages of text, and also several hundred pictures. The presentation aimed at showing Bartók's lesser-known side since we can always listen to Bartók's music, but rarely have access to his works on music theory and music education. An average person has no access to Bartók's manuscripts and letters whatsoever. I'm impressed at the site of his own letter addressed to his son in Switzerland. The letter was illustrated with his own drawings, and Bartók was having an excursion in the mountains. I wish that Bartók would be more accessible to others as well, not just to me. This CD justifies that Bartók was not just a genius musician, but also a remarkable human being. His love for nature was legendary and this love can be seen in many of his works. Some of his souvenirs are being shown in another CD presented first in Frankfurt book fair.

Bartók's letter

ABCD Interactive Magazine Beginning in 1994, "ABCD Interactive Magazine" was published quarterly. The magazine's production team has gained lifetime membership within the domestic digital community. I will be untruthful with those whose names are not mentioned here. However, András Nzírő and István Szakadát's names shouldn't be left out from this history. They were the first who proved with their works that the stupid soulless computer could be an effective provider of culture. Moreover, it can create culture. This source becomes an undeniable if it gets to the hands of creative, educated, and imaginative persons. After publishing the aforementioned disk entitled "Politika", they compiled the multimedia CD entitled A Guide of Budapest for Martians written by Antal Szerb. Then came ABCD, which was filled quarterly with tons of new and special materials. We couldn't wait to receive new issues. The permanent columns were entitled as follows: "The Net", "Facing the Computer", "MIDI", "Method", "Press Club", "Browsing", "Studio", "Gallery", "Concert", "Bookshelf", etc. It's impossible to list the contents of those disks' columns: from fiction to films, from the internet to contemporary music, from media arts to entire texts from Magyar Narancs, the multimedia version of Sándor Petőfi's poem "Helység kalapácsa" to the entire works of Shakespeare. The program that composes Mozart-like music was very successful, but the singing of Allan Ginsberg personally impressed me.

The profession was shocked when in 1996 IDG ceased to publish ABCD, citing financial problems as the reason. After a while, I'm afraid this radical step was inevitable. The golden age of a type of media could not last forever. The web came and won and first Nyirő and then Szakadát, as well, placed their operations to the Internet, where a new golden age started entitled Web-Based Content Providing, but this is another story....

Poem Store All poems of Endre Ady

Among the full-text databases, poems showed up rather late in 1997. The Poem Store published by Arcanum included all the poems of seventeen classic Hungarian poets. The user was able to search anything in these few thousand poems. For example, who and how many times used a certain expression, a certain word; quotations, names and anything else could have been found within seconds. The usefulness of this computer-based program was not questioned by anyone; however, more and more frequently, the following opinion was voiced: "What a joy it is to read the poems in hard-copy volumes." These opinions contributed to the fact that Arcanum enriched the Poem Store 1998 version with sound recordings too. This CD includes the life works of fifty poets and as a remarkable achievement, they published all poems of Endre Ady together with nine-hour long sound recordings in 1999.

János Pilinszky Attila József's entire life's work

Disks that used all possibilities of multimedia technology made a different impression on us. They used pictures and sounds not simply to support the words but to create an artistic mood. This type of emphasis is placed differently than in a work that focuses on the text. In the later case, vision and sound just serve as an illustration. A good example of how literature and computer science can meet is a CD entitled "Attila József's works in 7 languages" that included two popular poems for children. Another type is present in the way János Pilinszky's and Attila József's entire life's work is being processed in the multimedia format. We can say about both of the disks that multimedia serves the literature.

Picture of Tamás Péli of  'Gipsy CD-ROM'

Many of us do hope that our children could live in a world where people do not destroy each other's lives with prejudices. A good method is that we should get to know each other to prevent prejudices from being born. In Hungary, the Gypsy population -- a hardly tolerated minority -- faces a lot of problems. If we study their history, their customs and their art, the fear and distance between us will definitely decrease. The creators of the multimedia anthologies entitled Introduction to the Culture of Hungarian Gypsy Population had the following aim: they wanted to decrease the distance between the gypsy population living in the Carpathian Basin and other nationalities. In certain cases, the benefits are not only for persons belonging to other nationalities, but the disks can also benefit the gypsies themselves, for they can get to know their people's culture, both present and past.

It's impressive how rich the material in the disk is. The young team compiled three thousand pages of text, 1400 pictures and three-hours of sound and video recordings on the CD. Through the certain chapters, we get to know the history, language, music, literature, and art of the Gypsies. This disk is extraordinary from other aspects as well. This is the first work done by a team of youths grouped around the Kurt Lewin Foundation. The CD is a professional work of art almost free of the types of mistakes that typically come with early editions. The design and the structure are logical and knowledgeable. These youngsters are different from us because they are not emotional; they can keep a distance emotionally from what really interests them.

Map of  'Gipsy CD-ROM'

The Hungarian-English dictionary by László Országh Let the words come to me -- this is the title of an unforgettable and impressive book by András Sütő, in which he writes János Arany was blessed with 23,000 words in Nagysyalontá, where he was born. In the Hungarian-English dictionary by László Országh, ten times more words are listed. How many words do we regular persons take into our possession during our lives? After a while, the words inherited from our family are not or don't seem to be enough anymore; we turn to a dictionary when we learn foreign languages or when we want to speak and write more beautifully in our native language.

A dictionary is a serious thing: its name radiates determination and confidence. A dictionary is taken into the human hand when someone has a certain goal, or when someone wants to find an answer to a question. A dictionary may not be edited or published by just anyone, and unprofessional attempts die out. Professionalism is inevitable when editing and publishing a dictionary. An incompetent person would fail when collecting the words. It is not accidental that the right to publish a dictionary belongs to the biggest scientific publishers. The buyer or the purchaser needs the assurance that is given by the publisher's name. He knows he can rely on the expertise and scientific knowledge of the editor, the printer, and other experts.

The new academic little encyclopaedia

We are lucky because among Hungarian CD-ROM developers two extraordinary firms or companies have been present from the very beginning: MorphoLogic and Scriptum. The presence of an outstanding competitor firm encourages higher quality output from each firm. They didn't compete directly since they began to follow different paths. Scriptum together with the Academic Publishing House published the new academic little encyclopaedia, in addition to their dictionaries. MorphoLogic published its own dictionaries that were developed independently. This spring, however, they surprised the profession when both of the companies published Hungarian Word Treasury that became extremely popular in a very short time. This dictionary published at the Tinta Publishing House contains synonyms, idiomatic phrases, and antonyms.

Hungarian Word Treasury by MorphoLogic
MorphoLogic Bilingual Dictionaries Hungarian Word Treasury by Scriptum

Moving Picture Gallery

The first piece of a serial entitled MozgóKépTár published by the Hungarian Film Institute was designed with cool elegance. This database of films is of considerable size, the programming is immaculate, and the user-templates are beautiful. According to the description on the cover of the CD, the Hungarian actress Katalin Karádi looks into the distance and the focal point of her narration is the past.

The golden age of the Hungarian motion picture lasted from 1901 until 1944. This CD introduces the golden age by giving us a rich encyclopaedic database of filmography, along with numerous moving pictures and still photography. In the chapter entitled "Mozgóképek", fragments from fifty movies can be seen together with explanations. By clicking on credits, we get to know biographical data of actors, directors, cinematographers, script writers, art designers, composers and other film personnel. Search functions help us to navigate among names and data held in the database. The film menu groups motion pictures by either silent or speaking films and according to certain periods. The menu called "Film Literature" contains theoretical works, including interesting studies on the birth of Hungarian film and on the development of art films throughout the avant-garde period.

The series was planned to have six issues, but due to financial difficulties, the fifth issue is going to be published before the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the third issue is in process. The rest will be published after sponsorship is obtained.

Menu of Moving Picture Gallery

The Hungarian Crown Jewels

Not long ago, we celebrated the 1100th anniversary of the Conquest, in accordance with which the Hungarian National Museum published a line of CD-ROMs. This disk of outstanding importance presents the Hungarian Crown Jewels, the oldest group of crown jewels in Europe. Among the crown jewels, we find the Hungarian crown, sceptre and orb, the sword and the coronation robe. When the first Hungarian king, Stephen, who was later sainted, was crowned, the fate of the Hungarian nation was forever tied to Christian Europe.

The mightiest symbol of power, the crown, played a significant role in Hungarian history. According to terms of being a king, the validity of the crowning procedure depended on whether the sainted crown had covered the king's head or not. The nation refused to respect the king as the monarch if his inauguration wasn't done with the real crown. At the same time, if the king was crowned according to the Hungarian coronation rules, people accepted and respected him even if he was of foreign origin. A thousand-year-long history of the crown jewels and the history of the Hungarian nation are being introduced in the CD that was created by Cognitech, Ltd.

Supposedly two kilos of wood, 300 litres of water, and a lot of energy are needed to produce 1 kilo of paper. No wood needs cut up to produce an eighteen-volume book in CD-ROM format. Much less electricity is also needed. These facts justify the enterprise of the Kossuth Publishing House, which publishes a number of immortal works on nature, in digital reprint, and also keeps publishing printed books, too.

A Picture of  'The World of Animals' CD-ROM

A work by Alfred Brehm entitled "The World of Animals" was translated into virtually every European language and was published in various editions. Its impact was enormous, since when it was originally written in the second half of the nineteenth century, the science of zoology was limited to taxonomy and the biological study of animals. The natural environment and behaviour of animals were not the subjects of science. This is why Brehm became immortal; he was the first to recognise the significance of studying the environment of animals. When Brehm started his first African expedition in 1847, the vast majority of the world was literally untouched. The awful destruction brought by civilisation over the last one hundred years had not yet begun. This past situation is visualised in the multimedia CD of the Kossuth Publishing House. This CD is a great contribution to the children's knowledge of a world no longer in existence. These children whose knowledge of the original floral and fauna of the world is restricted to CDs will in the future be able to protect wildlife and to recreate harmony in the world.

Birds and Butterflies of Hungary

Ottó Herman was born to foreign parents but he loved Hungarians so much that he learned Hungarian beautifully. In his study entitled Arany, Tompa, Petőfi and the Birds of Folk Art, he aimed at analysing the way Hungarians think according to the relation between birds and poetry. Also, he brought attention to the Hungarians' extreme interest in birds. Ottó Herman made notes from all the poems of János Arany, Mihály Tompa, and Sándor Petőfi, and he counted that the three poets used a total of sixty-eight bird names in their works. Herman educated generations with his book entitled The Usefulness and Destruction of Birds, published at the turn of the century. Both works by Ottó Herman may be found in the celebratory publication of the Kossuth Publishing House entitled Birds and Butterflies of Hungary. The publisher celebrated the 1100th anniversary of the Conquest by publishing outstanding academic achievements of the turn of the century.

Birds are the most beautiful creatures of the world. Only the butterflies can compete with their beauty and range of colour. So it's not a wonder that one chapter is entitled "The Bird is a Beauty". A magnificent experience is given in several hundred drawings of two contemporary artists, Titusz Csörgey and Elemér Vezényi. Of our singing birds, the song of seventy-five can be heard. These sound recordings were taken from the famous collection of Mihály Ország. It may seem an anachronism that someone is getting to know the songs of birds living in nature with the help of a computer, but I am one of those people. I need these aids if I want to know which titmouse gives the silver bell sound and to tell the difference between different species.

What do we know about the future of CD-ROMs? A couple of years ago, we understood that the life span of this type of information provider is dated because DVD is coming with its multiplied capacities. Still, numerous CD-ROMs are being published throughout the world. People have got accustomed to and appreciate the silver disks. In Hungary, many new disks are going to be published before the Frankfurt Book Fair opens. The one-thousandth anniversary of our state is also going to be celebrated with a number of new publications. Shall we remember the CD-ROM in fifteen years? I'm very curious about that. The Hungarian Libaries in the Mirror of a Millennium Walking Through The Museums of Budapest