Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review of Pilgrims & Pilgrimage

Christianity and Culture, "Pilgrims & Pilgrimage: Journey, Spirituality & Daily Life Through the Centuries," interactive CD-ROM, 2007. ISBN 0-9550673-1-6, 978-0-9550673-1-0.

This multimedia resource is one of two from the Christianity and Culture initiative that I purchased while at Congress this year. The initiative's goal, according to their website, is "to explore and explain one of the most important influences on Western art, history and literature," and is a cooperative project sponsored by the University of York and St. John's College, Nottingham. The initiative Web site has something of a "sneak peek" of this disc, also called Pilgrims & Pilgrimage. The look and feel of these pages is very similar to that of the disc, and will give you a sampling of the kind of content included.

One of the most appealing aspects of this resource is that it takes advantage of browser technology, which means it is in fact platform-independent. The recommended minimum requirements listed on the disc's cover are a 4X CD-ROM, a screen resolution of 1024x768, and one of the supported browsers: Firefox 1, Internet Explorer 6, Netscape 7, or Safari 7. Those system requirements will probably be met by any computer manufactured during this millennium, as far as I can recall. I tested it most extensively on my work computer, because it is the type of lower-end system, with no administrator privileges, a student is likely to use in a campus lab. The browsers I tested it on were Firefox 2.0.0.14 and IE 6.0, SP2. Java should be enabled and pop-up blockers disabled for proper display. Because the disc content simply displays in the web browser of your choice, however, there is nothing to install on your local machine. When the disc is initially inserted, an executable file starts a launcher application for Windows or Mac, but the lack of a launcher application for Linux is not a problem, because one would simply open the file [CD-ROM drive letter]:/launch.htm from within the browser itself.

The interactive presentation itself opens in a popup window, since the disc has its own navigation system and doesn't require the browser's navigation tools or address bar. "Pilgrims & Pilgrimages" does in fact function like a well-designed Web site, and has a helpful introduction explaining how the content is arranged. Navigation is so easy, however, and the pages so well designed and laid out, the introduction is almost unnecessary. The content is arranged in five "sections," analogous to sections of a textbook, each section comprising a variable number of pages called "themes," somewhat analogous to chapters. The text of each theme, however, is quite a bit shorter than an average textbook chapter. Every theme is further subdivided into usually one to three paragraphs with large subheadings.

Multiple full-color images enrich every page, including photographs, images from manuscripts and early printed books, and coins. The disc's package suggests, "Click on an image to see a larger version, with commentary. Clicking on this larger image provides a full-size picture which can be projected or printed." Neither browser in which I tested the disc, however, actually worked this way. Instead, when the mouse pointer is hovered over an image, a small box pops up explaining the image briefly and giving the options "Go to Gallery" and "Print Image," while clicking on the image does nothing at all. If you want to open a larger version of the picture, clicking "Print Image" presents it in a larger format and offers the option for printing. The images are somewhat better than web quality; there is a noticeable breakdown in quality at 200% enlargement, but the large-size images would display very well with a data projector.

Many terms or named persons within the running text are linked to an encyclopedia feature. When the user hovers the mouse over text in red, a helpful definition or explanation pops up in a little box. This is a nice compromise between the needs of more advanced and less advanced readers. Blue text, as web users are conditioned to expect, links to other pages of the disc. Green text provides bibliographic citations or brief quotations. Other quotations are sometimes set off in separate boxes within the text. Each page is credited to a specific author, permitting attribution of the information given. The disc packaging lists many of the writers, and several were scholars familiar to me.

A consistent set of navigation and content tools are present on every page, making it easy to find one's way around. Furthermore, there are several options for browsing to specific sections or features on the disc. The entire presentation can be read from beginning to end sequentially like a book, or sampled at will. One can browse directly to the encyclopedia, a bibliography, a gallery of all the images presented in the text, or a list of key readings that includes entire texts or extracts from primary sources in translation. Most of the primary source readings are drawn from existing Web sites or from old public domain published translations, but a few appear to be original translations and, in some cases, evidently not published elsewhere. The sources include the usual suspects for such a topic, saints' lives and pilgrimage narratives, but also less frequently encountered texts such as a hermit's begging license.

The only feature of the disc that appears to require a proprietary technology is the QuickTime presentation of a sample medieval English parish church. The interactive QuickTime presentation allows the user to zoom in and out and navigate around the church, many of whose architectural features are conveniently labeled. The QuickTime player plugin for web browsers is a free download available in Windows and Mac versions, and codecs are also available for Linux users, so the presentation should still work on any platform. The presentation itself is, unfortunately, of rather low quality. It appears to be a panoramic photomosaic of an actual church, but one so poorly lit that it is difficult to distinguish most of the features. Furthermore, no instruction was given for navigating the reconstruction, though I was able to figure it out without too much difficulty.

I really expected a presentation put together by an outfit calling itself "Christianity and Culture" to be extremely Christian-centric, but this was in fact not the case for much of the content. One entire section of the disc puts the phenomenon of pilgrimage into a cross-cultural, anthropological perspective. It therefore includes information on the role of pilgrimage in many of the world's religions, past and present, as well as secular analogies to pilgrimage. One section focuses on pilgrimage in early Christianity, and two sections focus on the place of pilgrimage in earlier (600-1100) and later (1100-1500) medieval English society, respectively. The final section discusses pilgrimage in modern times and again takes a more cross-cultural perspective. The overall effect is to position medieval European Christian pilgrimage as one expression of a universal human impulse and experience. Perhaps because of the manner in which the presentation was designed and written, with multiple authors treating their own areas of specialty, I noticed none of the glaring and inaccurate generalities that sometimes plague textbooks written by a single author. Furthermore, it did not appear that any content was "dumbed down" to the lowest common denominator of reader, another common failing of textbooks.

I can envision a wide variety of pedagogical applications for this disc. It could serve as a textbook for an interdisciplinary class themed around pilgrimage, naturally. Part or all of the relevant sections could also be used for classes on the history of Christianity, medieval history, or English history. It would also be a good secondary text for certain anthropology, religion, literature, or art history courses. Even in classes where the disc would not serve as an appropriate textbook, the images could be useful to supplement classroom instruction, and the sections and themes could be helpful in designing lesson plans. At the current classroom discounted price of $20 per copy, however, it seems that it wouldn't be difficult to justify assigning this disc as one of several textbooks for a course.

Price: $30US from the Institute of Digital Theology, £15 from Christianity and Culture, $20 at Congress, $20 for classroom orders.

Pros: No installation required, cross-platform functionality, and minimal system requirements. Intuitive navigation and consistent layout. Excellent content and design. No intrusive copy protection or license agreements. Easy, hassle-free use. Low price for quality and quantity of content.

Cons: Umm... the QuickTime parish church presentation leaves much to be desired. Doesn't work exactly as described on product packaging. Anglocentric.

The Bottom Line: It was a steal at $20, and I still would have been happy if I'd paid $30.

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