Content The bookcase in the hallway of my childhood home displayed the distinctive yellow spines of my parents’ personal archive of National Geographic magazine, which spanned decades. Similar collections occupied the living rooms and dens of my friends’ homes as well. Somewhere between graduations, retirements, and a move to North Carolina, the archive was discarded, taking with it the photographs, maps, and stories that fueled my childhood imagination.
Luckily, the National Geographic Society has made its archival content available online to search and browse. While content from recent issues of the magazine was already available from nationalgeographic.com, the new archive makes it possible to also view issues from 1888 to 1994.
The award-winning photography, travel stories, and in-depth features synonymous with National Geographic magazine are all available in the archive. The pull-out map supplements that once covered my bedroom walls are now viewable on my computer screen, and nostalgia-inducing advertisements for Pan Am Airlines, Kodachrome film, and Remington typewriters are preserved alongside the magazine content.
The full text of stories, photo and illustration captions, map supplements, and advertisements is all searchable. As a result, the archive will be of use to researchers examining both how Uganda has changed over the past century and those examining changes in General Electric advertising practices.
Usability Users access the content in three main ways. First, the home screen showcases a selection of stories from the magazine. At the time of this review, featured stories included the discovery of the North Pole, the first photos of snow leopards in the wild, and a report chronicling one of the first scientific expeditions into Nepal following World War II.
Second, users can browse, or explore, the archive. The initial view is of cover images from each issue of the magazine. Scrolling down the page dynamically reveals more cover images, inviting viewers to keep looking backward in time. Unfortunately, though, the small size of the images makes it almost impossible to read the cover headlines, which seems like a lost opportunity. Dynamic functionality that would allow cover headlines to become legible upon scrolling over an image would be a definite improvement.
On this Explore page, it’s possible to narrow the list of magazine issues by subject matter by selecting from world cultures such as the Maya or Aztecs, from types of exploration including mountain climbing and underwater exploration, and from National Geographic standards such as mummies and archaeology. The list of issues can also be limited geographically and by publication date.
Third, users can search for content via a well-thought-out search tool. A basic search box appears on every page of the archive, and a “search within this issue or article” box is available on each content page. It’s clear that the creators of the advanced search understood how the archive will be used. Users can limit their searches to advertisements, map supplements, or covers, and a well-developed image search is included that allows queries based on description and image type (maps, cartoons, paintings, drawings, photographs, etc.).
Search results are sorted by category (maps, advertisements, features, etc.) and ranked by relevance. Results are easy to scan, displaying as they do clear, large titles, the first few sentences of each article, and a thumbnail of the first two pages of the article or the map supplement.
Once users locate content, they can view articles and stories via an in-browser reader that mimics the reading experience of the print magazine. Users flip through a scanned version of the issue, seeing text, images and ads. While this can be a delightful visual experience, individual pages take a few seconds to load, making quick browsing of an issue difficult. The in-browser viewer is initially quite small, making it necessary to zoom in quite far to read text, although a full-screen button can immediately make the text much more visible.
Because these are scanned versions of a print magazine, reading them online can be cumbersome, especially in the standard viewer. Zooming in far enough to read the text can mean a lot of scrolling back and forth in two-column layout pieces or panning to view images and captions. Utilizing the full-screen mode eases this problem a bit. The viewer is pretty basic, allowing readers to zoom in and out, flip through pages, and adjust the brightness and contrast of the images. However, there is no way to add notes or highlight text, handy add-ons for report writers.
Pages of each issue can be printed as is or as a PDFs, but there doesn’t seem to be a way of printing the map supplements (my favorite part of the magazine) at full size, though most users won’t have a printer that can produce pages that big anyway.
The archive includes some interesting analytical tools. My favorite, simply called the “Graphing Tool,” allows the plotting of occurrences of words and phrases in the archive over time, and is similar to the Google Ngram viewer. The tool allows users to see that use of the word “climate” peaked in 1947, whereas the phrase “global warming” was used the most in 1989 and use of “greenhouse effect” peaked in 1990.
The second analytical tool is the “Analyze” feature that comes into play when viewing search results, and that allows users to view a diagram of term clusters. Analysis of the first 100 words of the first 100 search results creates categories that are displayed in a donut-style chart. Subject categories are clickable, highlighting their appearance in the search results list to the right of the term cluster chart.
Additional features include the ability to mark “favorite” articles, add personal tags, and create MLA-style citations.
Pricing The archive is available as a subscription or as a one-time purchase, with prices based on the number of users. Subscriptions start at $790 for public libraries, $990 for school libraries, and $1190 for academic libraries. Continuous access purchase starts at $1995 for school libraries and $3500 for academic and public libraries.
Verdict The content of the National Geographic Magazine Archive is phenomenal. The scanned issues are of great quality and the browsing and searching interfaces are quite good. One-time purchase costs may even be manageable for many institutions. The archive is recommended for public libraries, as well as school libraries and some academic institutions.