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The Best of Sherlock Holmes
By Randall Stock, January 13, 2013
The eBSJ version 2 provides an entire library's worth of Sherlockian writings on your computer or tablet. It includes all issues of The Baker Street Journal through 2011, and makes it easy to search and find both individual issues and specific text across more than 18,000 pages of material.
Note: I was involved with producing the eBSJ v2, so this is obviously not an independent review. However, I've tried to be objective and even-handed.
The eBSJ version 2 provides a complete PDF archive of The Baker Street Journal from its inception in 1946 through 2011. You see pages, including text, photos, and drawings, just like they appeared in the original printed magazine. Its design makes it easy to find and use specific issues, and the searchable text makes it possible to quickly locate information across more than 18,000 pages.
By using PDF, the eBSJ should work with a wide range of software, computers, tablets, and e-readers. Many people are already familiar with PDF-viewing software like Adobe Reader, and will have little difficulty in reading and searching the eBSJ.
Most people don't own a complete collection of the printed BSJ, and it's difficult to find libraries with complete holdings. The eBSJ makes it simple and affordable to own a complete set. If you ever plan to write a Sherlockian paper, you need to have the eBSJ. Non-researchers will enjoy a chance to read all the classic articles from the last sixty-plus years.
Ratings (ratings explained)
Search and Navigation: Very Good
Review and Note-Taking: Very Good+
Content is the essential base of any magazine archive. The eBSJ v2 provides a PDF archive of all 276 issues of The Baker Street Journal from inception in 1946 through 2011. That includes all the BSJ Christmas Annuals, some of which were produced and sold separately from the BSJ itself. It also contains PDF files of Donald Redmond's three printed indexes to the BSJ for 19461993, and an Adobe Reader/Acrobat catalog for advanced searching. The entire collection comes on a single DVD.
Most users won't need to install new software to view the eBSJ files. They use industry-standard PDF and are viewable with the free Adobe Reader, Apple Preview, and many other software apps. By utilizing a version of PDF available for many years, the eBSJ should work with virtually all PDF-viewing software.
Each magazine issue is saved as a separate file. Text, drawings, and photographs are all included and pages retain their original layout. Most files were created from scans of printed issues and produced using an "image over text" style of PDF. This provides an exact picture of each page. Searchable computer text is "hidden" behind the page image.
The benefit of that approach is that you see exactly what was in the original print magazine. When reading articles, you don't have any distracting OCR-based textual errors and you can be sure that photos and drawings appear in context. This "image over text" method is clearly the best approach for an historical document archive.
Casual readers will, however, find this approach has a few tradeoffs. Most notably, unlike popular eBooks where a reader can adjust the size of text and have sentences all reflow on screen, pages in the eBSJ are like pictures. Your software may allow you to magnify the page image, but text will not reflow and it may not fit nicely on your screen. This is usually not a problem for computers and 9-inch tablets like the iPad, but it can make text appear quite small on a 5-inch Kindle e-reader. Some people will find that using their tablet/e-reader sideways (in landscape mode) will provide a better reading experience.
Most pages from 19462000 are shown in black & white. This produces very readable, high-contrast text. Drawings and photographs look similar to a basic photocopy, though some are poor. Grayscale reproductions are used for most pages with illustrations in 20012011. These provide much higher-quality reproductions of the photo/drawing, but with the tradeoff of a lighter-color, lower-contrast text on those pages.
BSJ covers were typically simple black images on yellow paper until 2009. The eBSJ dropped out the yellow background for those older issues. The more-elaborate cover illustrations in 2009 are shown in grayscale. The BSJ changed to color cover illustrations in 2010 and the eBSJ 20102011 covers are shown in full color.
In addition to the 276 BSJ issues, the eBSJ includes PDFs of Donald Redmond's printed indexes. These cumulative indexes cover 19461969 and 19701993. They are scanned PDFs and the OCR resulted in some text errors, especially for 19461969. They provide a useful backup to full-text searches, but careful researchers will need to consult them manually to be sure to locate all citations.
The eBSJ v2 provides a comprehensive archive of BSJ content from inception through 2011. Both text accuracy and image quality are quite good but not perfect. Providing exact page images makes this a fine archival resource.
Rating for Content (Quantity and Quality): Excellent
An archive covering more than 18,000 pages needs to be structured so you can quickly find the information you need. The eBSJ provides four key search and navigation features.
It begins with a simple file organization and naming scheme. Each issue is stored in a separate file. The filename includes an issue's date as well as the volume and issue number. This is a major improvement over the naming approach in the BSJ on CD-ROM.
When sorted alphabetically by filename, the files appear in chronological order. Combined with the detailed filenames, this second key feature makes it very simple and fast to find and open a specific issue.
Most researchers will be looking for information on a general subject or topic. The eBSJ includes indexes to the content of all the regular issues, but to only some of the Christmas Annuals. In addition, those indexes are split into many different parts. One covers 19461969, another spans 19701993, and there are annual indexes for each year from 1994 through 2011. That means you need to check 20 different files to cover the entire time-span, and yet still may miss material in some Christmas Annuals.
A better strategy will be to use the full-text search function of your software to locate appearances of key search terms. OCR text errors can cause some items to be missed, so you need to be careful when selecting your terms and using this function.
The overall text accuracy for the eBSJ v2 is quite good, and a major improvement over the BSJ on CD-ROM for issues from the 1950s. Text quality is basically unchanged from the BSJ CD for the 1940s and 1960s2000. The quality for 20012009 is very good, and 20102011 were produced from direct e-text rather than scanning and thus have no OCR errors. In practice I've found the full-text feature of the eBSJ v2 to work quite well.
The final key search feature of the eBSJ is its Acrobat catalog index. This special index allows Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat users to perform even faster and more powerful searches. If you combine this with copying the eBSJ files to your hard disk, searching becomes very fast and efficient. See my Tips for Using the eBSJ for details.
Unlike the e-Sherlock Holmes Journal, the eBSJ does not provide Logical Page Numbers, Navigation Pane bookmarks, or a unified subject index. None of these are essential. Having used the e-SHJ for many years, I've concluded the first two are nice refinements but offer only minor value.
However, a unified subject-author-title index that covers the full 19462011 span including all Christmas Annuals would be useful for certain types of research. Often a full-text search will provide more comprehensive results. But in some cases a standard index can be much better. For example, if you want to find articles about "bakers" or "baking," a full-text search will be difficult since the word "baker" appears in every issue of the BSJ. For cases like this, researchers can use the human-compiled indexes to almost all of the BSJ issues, but must consult many separate files.
The eBSJ v2 provides four critical search/navigation features: detailed filenames, names that sort chronologically, full-text searchability, and an Acrobat catalog file. That earns it a "very good" rating. Although not unified, it includes a subject-author-title index which fills in some gaps for thorough researchers..
Rating for Search and Navigation: Very Good
Once you've located some material you'll want to review it. If the information is useful, you may want to print, copy, or annotate it for future reference.
The eBSJ PDF files show pages exactly as they appeared in the printed magazine. This provides readers with the same context as the original source material. Reading is straightforward on large screens, and there are no distracting OCR text errors or font changes. A key trade-off is that text does not resize and reflow on smaller screens.
The files allow printing and copying, and they have no security restrictions. Thus your review and note-taking options will depend on what PDF-viewing software you use.
One minor drawback in the eBSJ is that most of the text from 1946 to 2000 will copy/paste by default with a white color. You can avoid that by useing the option in your word processor that lets you "Keep text only" or else use a "Paste Special" command and choose "Unformatted Text." That strips out formatting and pastes using your default (black) text color.
Most researchers will find that Adobe Reader provides the best balance of review/note-taking features and cost. It's better than most other PDF-viewing apps, and it's free. Power users may want to consider the full Adobe Acrobat, but it's expensive. Microsoft Office 2013 is supposed to have some PDF viewing/editing functionality but I have not tested it, and it may not work with the "image over text" method used in eBSJ PDF files.
The eBSJ is designed to be a flexible archival resource, and software like Adobe Reader can be used with it for efficient review and note-taking
Rating for Review and Note-Taking: Very Good+
Using the eBSJ depends on your choice of PDF-viewing software. However, there are settings and choices in creating PDF files that will affect usability in general. Some of these design points are described above, but other refinements are worth noting.
The eBSJ uses filenames that make it simple to find and open a specific file. In addition, each eBSJ issue opens to the default zoom magnification level and page layout selected in the your software (e.g., Adobe Reader) preferences, allowing you to choose the size that best fits your screen resolution and reading comfort. Some people want to see an entire page on-screen, while others prefer a view with larger text. Some like to scroll continuously between pages and others like to jump to each successive page. On a large desktop monitor, I usually like to set my Adobe Reader preferences for Page Display with Layout as single-page continuous (for scrolling) and Zoom to Fit Width (for larger text).
When copying text from a PDF to a Word file for note-taking, it's useful to include the source citation. That's essential if you want to find it again, or to include it in a footnote for a paper that you're writing. Because eBSJ files include the issue citation details in the filename, you can simply look at the title bar at the top of the Adobe Reader window to include that citation with your notes.
Special optimization makes file sizes smaller (in megabytes) for the eBSJ. The BSJ on CD-ROM required 2.5 GB of space and a typical file took 11 MB. The eBSJ v2, with 25% more issues, uses only 0.9 GB of disk space and a typical file is about 2.5 MB. Besides saving you disk space, smaller files are easier to transfer and use on tablets.
The version of PDF used in the eBSJ has been around for many years, and the files don't use special features like Flash-based portfolios, so they should work with almost all PDF-viewing software. But just in case, the eBSJ v2 includes a second set of "Alternate" files created using different PDF encoding technology.
Most people are very familiar with using PDF files already, and have PDF-viewing software like Adobe Reader already installed. Thus detailed usage and Help documentation is really part of that software. The eBSJ hardcopy documentation includes only a summary of the DVD contents. The DVD does contain a ReadMe file and an Introduction with some useful information, but there are no detailed "Getting Started" instructions. However, the BSJ website includes links to FAQs and to my Tips on Using the eBSJ. Overall the eBSJ has reasonable documentation for most users.
Finally, the eBSJ is designed so that it won't interfere with the BSJ on CD-ROM. While there is no reason to keep the older version, it should not affect the eBSJ v2 even if you copied BSJ CD files onto your hard disk.
The eBSJ v2 PDF files includes many refinements that improve usability with a wide range of software and systems.
Rating for Usability: Excellent
Most people don't have a complete set of BSJ issues. Just finding old copies can be a challenge and quite expensive. Putting together a complete set could easily cost $1,000. From that perspective, the eBSJ v2 is a real bargain at $149.95.
The eBSJ v2 has other advantages. You need considerable bookshelf space to store 276 print copies, while the eBSJ package (a standard DVD case) takes only an inch. It's often faster to find a specific issue in the eBSJ, and of course, the eBSJ searchable text makes it a far superior research tool.
Another way to assess value is to look at the per-issue and per-page cost of the archive. The eBSJ v2 costs $0.54 per issue. That compares to $7.70 per print issue from a current subscription. Comparing the major e-Holmes magazine archives and adjusting for inflation, we see that the eBSJ v2 is excellent value:
|Product||Issues||Pages||Cost / Issue||Cost / Page|
eBSJ v2 (2012)
BSJ CD (2001)
* Issue counts include indexes; Page counts include covers & adverts; Ephemera (menus, cards, etc.) not included
* Costs adjusted for inflation to 2011 dollars
Some people already own the BSJ on CD-ROM, and thus have an archive for 19462000. For a limited time, they can get the eBSJ v2 for $49.95 with a trade-in. They save $100, effectively getting full credit for the original purchase price of the CD-ROM set. Value to these users comes from two main categories:
- New material not on the CD-ROM
- Improvements to material on the CD-ROM
For new material, they get all issues from 20012011. That comprises 55 issues including all the Christmas Annuals. They also get an Acrobat catalog index for faster searching using Adobe Reader X and later (the CD-ROM includes a catalog index that only works with Adobe Reader 9 or earlier).
Improvements to material they have on the CD-ROM include:
- Much better searchable text for issues from the 1950s
- Filenames that make it faster & easier to open a specific issue
- Smaller file sizes for all issues 19462000; better performance and use on tablets
- Additions and Corrections to more than 30 other issues
- Replaces 4 CDs with a single DVD
Getting the trade-in is a no-brainer for people who have the CD-ROM set but are missing any print issues from 20012011. If you are a serious researcher, the better searchable text in the 1950s and the Acrobat catalog also make the trade-in a great deal. The decision becomes more subjective for other people, but most will find it worthwhile to take advantage of the limited-time trade-in offer.
The eBSJ v2 is much less expensive than getting printed copies, matches up very well compared with other e-Holmes material, and is an overall excellent value.
Rating for Value: Excellent
No computer product is error-free. I've found some minor errata and limitations when using the eBSJ, but none that were significant enough to affect my overall rating for the product. It is, however, useful to know about these things since that can save time and reduce frustration for users. I've listed my findings at the eBSJ Errata and Limitations page.
It's always possible to make a better product. At the same time, marginal improvements may not justify the additional time and effort.
The key improvement would be to keep the eBSJ archive complete with more frequent updates. That's now more feasible from a technology perspective, since new issues can be based on original softcopy print-production files rather than being scanned. It would be nice to have annual or bi-annual updates available so researchers could easily search even recent issues.
Better OCR accuracy might be possible in the future, and this is worth investigating. However, it could be that new OCR would just change which errors appear and not significantly improve the total accuracy rate.
The other major improvement would be to produce a unified subject-author-title index for all the issues, including the Christmas Annuals. The current indexes could provide a basis for this, but it's not simply a matter of merging them since they sometimes use different subject entries. Having done a limited test myself, I know this would be a lot of work.
The eSHJ included PDF files of some interesting ephemera: Dinner Menus, Christmas Cards, and Membership Lists. Though not central to the magazine itself, similar BSI material could be of interest.
If you have ideas for other improvements, please contact me.
The e-Baker Street Journal version 2
Published by and available from The Baker Street Irregulars.
1 DVD; no printed documentation.
Version: 2.0 (December 2012)
Price: US$149.95 (limited-time trade-in offer of $49.95 for BSJ on CD-ROM owners)
File Format: Portable Document Format (PDF)
Requires: DVD drive; PDF-viewing software like Adobe Reader 6 or later