Publication Date

May 1, 1991

Perspectives Section



Digital Methods

Readers of Perspectives are probably aware that a package of computer programs called Notebook II Plus is being offered to AHA members at the reduced price of $179. This package includes the database management program Notebook II and two auxiliary programs, Bibliography and Citation. Notebook II and Bibliography are products of Pro/Tem Software, Inc. Citation (the successor to an earlier program called Bibliotech) is produced by Oberon Resources, which is also marketing the package as a whole to AHA members.

Although $179 is indeed a reasonable price for a powerful software package, those unfamiliar with Notebook II might well want to know something about the program before deciding whether to purchase it. It is not self-evident that every historian needs to learn how to use a database management program, and Notebook II is not necessarily the best database management program for all users or for all purposes. Before committing oneself to purchase and learn any database management program, a would-be user should have some idea of what it can and cannot do and some sense of how it compares with similar programs. It is this background information that I will attempt to provide here.

As a database management program, Notebook II belongs to the same general family of computer programs as such well-known packages as dBaseIV, Paradox, and RBase. Notebook II differs from these database managers in being primarily designed to work with text. It therefore belongs to a much smaller sub-family of programs, sometimes known as text-oriented database managers, which also includes such programs as Pro-Cite and Inmagic. These programs aid users in organizing and searching text files in a variety of ways, such as generating bibliographic citations or retrieving particular texts by key words. It is against such programs that Notebook II should be evaluated.

Anyone who considers purchasing a text-oriented database program should have some experience with using word processors on microcomputers. Even a simple database management program like Notebook II is likely to be confusing to new computer users. Those who are familiar with one of several powerful word processors, such as Nota Bene or WordPerfect, will immediately recognize some of the capabilities of Notebook II. Users of these programs will have an advantage in learning Notebook II.

Users of sophisticated word processors also may not have any real need to purchase a database management program. Specialized “add on” programs exist for some word processors that enhance their database management capabilities. Dragonfly Software has a simple bibliographic database management program called N.B. Ibid, which works with Nota Bene. And Oberon Resources sells a program called WPCitation, designed to perform some of the same functions for WordPerfect that Citation does for Notebook II. The novice would do well to become acquainted with the capabilities of these programs before deciding whether he or she requires the greater power and flexibility of a database management program.

To evaluate database managers, it is necessary to know something about how they work. In comparison to word processors, they are highly structured programs. They operate by requiring their users to divide information into pieces that can somehow be grouped or categorized. Like dBaseIV and other database managers, Notebook II requires that information be structured into units called “records” and “fields.” One or more fields constitute a record, and a numbers of records make up a database. A typical Notebook II database might consist of several hundred records consisting of citations to individual books and articles. Each of these bibliographic records would be made up of a number of fields, each with its own name or label. Thus, a single record for a book might consist of fields labeled “author,” “title,” “publisher,” “place of publication,” “date,” “abstract,” or any other field one might want.

Most database managers can sort records alphabetically or numerically by the information entered into any field. Database managers can also select records containing certain information—for example, all books published since a particular year, or all records containing a key word such as “historiography” or “Milton.” A good database manager can also print selected records or fields in a variety of ways. It is basically their superior ability to divide, reorganize, and sort information that sets database managers off from word processors.

Notebook II has a number of features which distinguish it from most database managers, especially in the way it combines characteristics of both a database manager and a word processor. Unlike most database managers, it works with fields of any length—with what are called “variable length fields.” This feature is critical for anyone working with textual information. Many of the commands it uses are similar to those of familiar word processors such as WordStar and WordPerfect. It also has a number of features familiar to users of word processors, such as “cut and paste” and “search and replace.” Notebook II has the inestimable advantage of being relatively easy to learn and use. Unlike many database managers, it does not require programming to take advantage of all of its features. Anyone already familiar with a word processor should be able to use it after a few hours of practice.

Notebook II also has a number of special features designed to appeal to scholars, such as the ability to work with auxiliary programs that format citations according to a variety of style sheets. It can sort through huge files of variable-length records and print text in a large variety of formats. Users can find records by specifying any word located either in a particular field or anywhere in a database. One can also select groups of records from a database by entering any of a variety of criteria, such as personal names or subject keywords. The current edition of Notebook II has the ability to create a printed keyword index on any field. It also comes with a utility called Convert that allows it to import records from the two leading vendors of on-line bibliographic databases, BRS and Dialog. These capabilities make Notebook II well suited for creating bibliographies and for organizing notes and interviews.

In spite of its impressive capabilities, Notebook II has some weaknesses. Database managers that use variable-length fields, including Notebook II, have fragile record structures that can break down and destroy an entire database. It is therefore especially important to keep backup copies of files created by these programs. Notebook II also occasionally produces unexpected results, such as not alphabetizing a record correctly, no matter how often a database is sorted. Furthermore, it lacks many of the text-formatting capabilities of a good word processor. For all of these reasons, anyone who uses Notebook II to prepare text for publication will probably need to polish its final output with a word processor. Fortunately, it is a simple matter to transfer files from Notebook II to a word processor.

Notebook II has limitations that may make it unsuitable for some people. It is not designed to work with visual images. Other database managers are much better at manipulating numbers. It has no hypertext capabilities. Its Convert program does not work with several important sources of scholarly information, including OCLC and RLIN (the major national on-line computerized library catalogs).

For someone like myself, who uses database managers primarily to create and organize bibliographies, Notebook II is too limited in its ability to alphabetize materials according to standard bibliographic conventions. Like most computer programs, it uses a formula for alphabetizing materials based on the standard computer (ASCII) sorting sequence, which is quite different from that used in libraries and bibliographies. The producers of the program have modified the ASCII collating sequence to the extent of giving users the option of having it ignore diacritical marks in alphabetization, but there is no option to ignore articles like “the” in alphabetization, and names placed in brackets will sort before all alphabetic characters. It is possible to get around these problems, but the procedures for doing so are tedious and time consuming.

Another annoying flaw in Notebook II, which it shares with most database management programs, it its inability to provide a clear graphic display of words that have been underlined or bold faced. This is irritating in a bibliographic program, and can lead to a long, printed bibliography with the wrong words underlined. In this and other respects Notebook II does not achieve the “what you see is what you get” standard to which word processor users have become accustomed.

Perhaps the people at Pro/Tem will correct some of these weaknesses in the future upgrades of the program. This review is based on version 3.02 of Notebook II. By the time this is published, version 4.0 should have been released. The new release is supposed to include a number of desirable features and capabilities. These include faster searching and sorting times; a global search and replace command; compatibility with Windows 3.0; increase in maximum record size to 64,000 characters per record; and a larger number of key assignments for diacritical characters. But version 4.0 will apparently not correct any of the weaknesses mentioned above.

There is no shortage of rival programs that compensate for some of the shortcomings of Notebook II—although often at a high monetary price with disadvantages of their own. To fully understand Notebook II’s strengths and weaknesses, it would be necessary to compare it in detail against several alternative programs. Because of space limitations, I will limit myself to a few remarks comparing it with a popular rival program, Pro-Cite.

For those primarily interested in bibliographic applications, Pro-Cite is well worth investigating. Pro-Cite is probably the most widely used bibliographic database management program, and it has been selected to aid in the production of the new edition of the American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature. Pro-Cite is similar to Notebook II, although more expensive ($395). Aside from price, Pro-Cite has a number of advantages and disadvantages in comparison to Notebook II.

Notebook II has an edge over Pro-Cite in several respects. Notebook II is much more flexible in formatting text in nonstandard ways on the printed page. It is also better adapted to sorting and reorganizing textual materials, which makes it more useful for someone who wants to use the program for such purposes as reorganizing lecture notes or interviews.

It is also much easier to input foreign-language diacritics using Notebook II than Pro-Cite. It is surprising in a program designed for bibliographers that Pro-Cite does not provide any way to reprogram keys for foreign characters. It should be noted, however, that Pro-Cite’s weakness in this respect can be easily circumvented by using a memory-resident keyboard reconfiguration program, such as Borland’s SuperKey. These inexpensive keyboard reconfiguration programs are, incidentally, also useful with database management programs for such purposes as reducing repetitious data entry.

On the other side of the balance, Pro-Cite has some features in which it excels Notebook II. One such feature is its sorting capabilities. Unlike Notebook II, Pro-Cite is not tied to the ASCII collating sequence. It gives its users several sorting options, allowing one to specify words and characters to ignore in sorting. Another feature of Pro-Cite that many users will appreciate is its ability to import records from scholarly databases including BRS, Dialog, OCLC, RLIN, and Notis (a widely used on-line library catalog). Pro-Cite adapts these records through add-on programs called Biblio-Links. These Biblio-Links are expensive, costing $195 for each service, and they do not always work as well as one might wish. In spite of these drawbacks, Pro-Cite’s Biblio-Links can import records from a wider range of on-line databases than can Notebook II’s Convert program or anything else on the market.

The person who is frustrated by the limitations of both Notebook II and Pro-Cite should explore the many alternative programs on the market. The more powerful of these programs are usually more expensive and more difficult for the novice to use than either Notebook II or Pro-Cite. Among the best and most popular of them are Inmagic, AskSam, and Advanced Revelation. Reviews of these programs can easily be located in most academic libraries. As noted above, there is no one “best” program; they have to be evaluated according to a person’s specific needs and computer skills. But a person who is unfamiliar with database management programs and wants help in organizing textual materials could not go too far wrong in investing in Notebook II, since it is reasonably priced and represents a good compromise between power and ease of use.

David Allen works in the Reference Department, Main Library, at State University of New York, Stony Brook. Notebook II and Bibliography are products of Pro/Tem Software, Inc.