Retrospect Publishing - Pennsylvania Genealogy Books on CD-ROM 

The following article is from Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright 2003 by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at

Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter  

Plus Edition

A Weekly Summary of Events and
Topics of Interest to Online Genealogists
Vol. 8 No. 23 - June 9, 2003

Pennsylvania Genealogy Books on CD-ROM

Retrospect Publishing has released a number of electronic reprints of Pennsylvania genealogical and historical books. Each CD-ROM contains high quality images of the original pages, along with a full- text search capability. This week I had a chance to use one of the books on CD: Butler County, The People and Towns, 1796-1883. I found it to be a very impressive work.

To be sure, this is an electronic republication of a book that has been available for 120 years. The book is an every-word-searchable electronic version of a book published in 1883 by Waterman, Watkins & Co. of Chicago. This book is typical of the many county history books written in the late 1800s: it gives a lot of information about the history of the county, followed by short biographies of the more prominent citizens. If not prominent, they were at least the people who could afford to purchase a copy of the book in advance of its publication. Each person listed is described in glowing terms, usually as "of fine moral character." Apparently those of lesser moral characteristics were not mentioned at all.

Perhaps a republication of an old book would normally not be considered "impressive." However, this is no ordinary electronic reprint. What makes this work impressive is the search tool added to the electronic version.

In contrast to publishers of many other CD-ROM reprints that I have described in the past, Retrospect Publishing has developed their own "reader" software. It is optimized for old books, unlike the generic software products, such as Adobe Acrobat reader, which other products use. Retrospect Publishing's reader software is called Retrospector.

The Retrospector software for Windows is included on the CD-ROM, along with the book images and transcription. Installation of Retrospector was typical of any modern Windows program: insert the CD, follow the on-screen instructions, and then re-boot the system. I was soon looking at the cover page of a 120-year-old book.

It would be easy to say that I searched for a few surnames and found them and then printed out a few pages. I have written this in many past reviews about books on CD and, indeed, I did this also with the Butler County, The People and Towns CD-ROM disk. However, I soon found that I could do a lot more. In reality, I did more with this disk than I have with any other CD-ROM disk that I remember, and I am sure I still did not discover everything it can do. In fact, perhaps the worst thing I can say about this series of disks is that it takes quite a while to learn all the features available. To be sure, I was doing simple searches within seconds after installing the software, and those simple searches worked well. It was the more advanced tools that took a while to learn, tools that are not available on other CD-ROM disks.

The pages displayed on the screen are always images from the original book. However, transcribed data apparently exists on the same CD, a conclusion I drew as I found I could search for any word or combination of words. This is just not possible on disks that only contain page images.

As usual, I started off with a simple search for my own surname, and several occurrences were found. I could click on any occurrence of the name in the search results box, and within a second or two, an image of the original page containing that reference would appear on the screen. Best of all, a green "highlighter" on the edge of the screen would show the paragraph in which the name could be found. No more looking all over the page trying to find a reference!

The images of the original pages were crystal clear, better than most other CD-ROM disks containing images of old books. Readability was always excellent; every word was crisp and distinct.

I found mentions of men and women with my last name in various political offices. One was listed as a member of the county bar association; others were listed as farmers, and one was listed in an obituary – all the sorts of information I would have expected in a county history book. I found that I could quickly move from one occurrence of the name to the next by clicking on the PREVIOUS and NEXT icons.

Then things became fun. I spent some time in the Help File and discovered the Moderate Search and Advanced Search Modes.

The Moderate Search supports basic AND / OR Search Criteria. It can search:

  • Books Searched: Either all or one of the books may be searched.
  • Word Order: You may require the words to be book in the same order they are used in the criteria.
  • Word Locations: The words must all be located together (within about two words)
  • Word Count: Up to three sets of words / numbers (called OR sets) may be used as criteria.
  • Test: A word from each OR set must all be found (logical AND or OR sets).
  • Set Size: The OR sets each may contain up to three words.
  • Soundex: Search for words independent of spelling variations. Enabled for CD-ROMs where it is most useful, such as the Pennsylvania Published Archives. (Always available as Advanced Mode Soundex Search).

The Advanced Mode allows the user to search:

  • Books Searched: Either all or one of the books may be searched.
  • Word Order: You may require the words to be book in the same order they are used in the criteria.
  • Word Locations: The words must all be located together (you may specify the proximity, up to 999 words apart)
  • Word Count: Up to five sets of words / numbers may be used as criteria.
  • Set Size: The sets of words each may contain an unlimited number of words.
  • Test: A word in all OR sets must all be found (logical AND or OR sets) except that,
  • Exclusions: You may require a word / OR set to be excluded in the results (logical NOT).

While the searches are powerful, other capabilities are also available that I am not used to seeing on other disks. One that is difficult to describe but easy to use is the ability to zoom in on the text. Remember that you are looking at on-screen images of original books. With the mouse, you can highlight a word, a few words, or even a few paragraphs, and then zoom in instantly to see magnified images of the highlighted area.

Another feature that I found useful is that this CD-ROM uses the same page numbers as the original document. In other, simpler book-viewing software, the CD-ROM software assumes that the first page is number 1, the second is number 2, and so on. However, most books have the first few pages listed in lower case Roman numerals. The first page might be page i, the second one is page ii, the third is page iii, etc. If there were six pages before the printed page one, telling the software to go to page 85 might actually display page 79 of the printed book. Not so with Retrospect Publishing's Retrospector software; telling the software to go to page 85 ends up with the real page 85 displayed. The first few pages use the same Roman numeral page numbers as the original printed book.

I also found it easy to set "bookmarks" in the CD-ROM pages. I could electronically "mark" a page and then return to the same page at any time in the future.

Printing individual pages was effortless; simply click on the Print icon, and a near-perfect image of that page appears on your printer a short time later. The printouts are self-documenting: the book's title, the section subtitle, and the page number appear along the bottom of the printed page, along with Retrospect Publishing's copyright and a reference to the company's Web page.

Because these are images displayed on the screen, it is impossible to copy-and-paste text from the book into other Windows programs. Apparently there is no capability to copy-and-paste the images, either. The only method I can find of copying data to another Windows program is to manually re-type it.

Retrospect Publishing also has an interesting "Word Check" on the company's Web site. You can check all the CD-ROMs for the presence of a word by entering it on the Web site: type a single word in the box, and then click the button. If available on any CD-ROM, the word will be displayed on the company's Web site. For instance, entering my own name into the search box quickly displayed a list of all the Retrospect Publishing CD-ROM disks in which that name occurs. This is a great way of checking in advance for names before spending money. To be sure, the Web search is very simple when compared to the search software on the CD-ROM disks, but it serves its purpose.

Retrospector software runs on most any Windows PC built in the past five or six years. It requires Windows 95 or later operating system, a 486 or faster processor, 16 megabytes of RAM memory, 4 megabytes of hard drive space, and a VGA display capable of 256 colors or more. There is no Macintosh version of the Retrospector software.

Butler County, The People and Towns sells for $39.95 plus tax and shipping. Retrospect Publishing has many other Pennsylvania books available at prices ranging from $19.95 through $98.95. A complete list can be found on their Web site at: You can order these CD-ROM disks from a safe and secure shopping cart order system on the same Web site.

I was impressed with Retrospector software and the one CD-ROM data disk from Retrospect Publishing that I had a chance to use. It worked well, searches were almost instantaneous, and the search software has more options than I have seen in most other "old books on CD-ROM" disks. The information was first class as well. For more information, look at:

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