Garden Railways: The Complete Collection DVD set

A collection of materials from 1984-2015
Garden Railways: The Complete Collection 1984-2015
Kalmbach Publishing Co.
PO Box 1612
Waukesha WI 53187
Price: $89.95

Pros: Two-DVD set contains all issues of Garden Railways from 1984 through 2015, plus scaled plans and the Sidestreet Banner; definitive archival collection; functional and attractive user interface; fast searches

Cons: Text sharpness of early issues is marginal; no way to copy or export text; pull-out plans not linked to magazine index; searches may require multiple tries to find what you’re looking for
There are some bookshelves in my workshop. On these are my reference books and magazines. One of my most prized references is a complete, hardbound set of Garden Railways magazine, from 1984 to the present. Looking back over the 33 years of publication, I am astonished by the breadth and depth of the articles that we, the readers, have contributed to the hobby through GR. I cannot think of a single outdoor-railroading topic that hasn’t been covered by the magazine. It’s the Encyclopedia Ferro-Botanica.

Not everyone, however, is fortunate enough to have this resource on their bookshelf. I count myself quite lucky in that regard. But now my shelves of bound magazines are no longer a hard-to-find rarity because, at long last, we have a digital version of the magazine in the form of a two-DVD set, containing all the issues from 1984 through 2015, plus a year and a half of the Sidestreet Banner (forerunner to GR), as well as all of the newspaper-size pull-out plans included in the magazine from 1992 through 2006, and the digital plans from following years. What a treasure trove! But will it replace hard copy? I think it might well.

First, the basics. Installation was simple and straightforward, leaving a “GR” program icon on my desktop. I chose to install only the browser and index on my Windows computer, which requires the reader to insert one of the data discs to read the desired magazine. This uses less disk space but takes a bit longer to swap discs. If you want faster access, you can do a full data installation of all 201 issues, around 10GB. (The discs work with Apple computers as well, but I did not test that installation.)

Neither of these methods loads the pull-out plans onto your computer, however. To access them, you must load the first disc and open the “Plans” folder, where they are stored in PDF format. In addition to the full-size plans by Ted Stinson (about 100), there are also 19 plans reprinted or redrawn from Model Railroader. An insert in the case has instructions on printing the plan segments on multiple sheets of letter-size paper, then connecting them to achieve a full-size plan.

The user interface to the library shows “shelves” stocked with magazine cover images. (If you prefer, there is a list view showing only the dates. This is actually less compact than the bookshelf view.) The default is to show all issues, with the newest first, but they may be sorted oldest-to-newest as well, or selected by decade of publication. A double-click on a cover brings up the magazine, which can be navigated by arrows and a page-number box at the bottom of the screen, or by using the up and down arrows or PageUp/PageDown on your keyboard.

The on-screen interface is easy to use but the most useful control for me was the “zoom in.” I found it impossible to get a sharp image of a full page, which suffered from the “screen door” effect. But zooming in to a half page gave a pin-sharp image, easy to read. It would have been nice if pressing “+” or “-” on the keyboard would zoom in or out, though.

My bound copies bristle with sticky notes, where I have bookmarked an article or plan I want to remember or revisit later. The digital version also permits bookmarking, also allowing you to add notes like “three-truck Shay conversion” or “D&RG coach review.” If you want to print a page to take to the workshop or garden, you’ll get a crisp facsimile that you can fold up in your pocket, or mark up and throw away when you’re done.

The program is not perfect, of course, so I have to note a couple of shortcomings. The bonus plans aren’t listed in tables of contents or the computer interface—you have to open a file browser to find them on disc 1. Also, starting in 1987 the GR staff put together an annual index listing all articles in all issues for the year, sorted by author and by topic. These are quite useful and still available on, but it would have been logical and easy to include them in this product, too. Both of these are minor points.

Searching has more serious quirks. For example, if an issue is open, the search only works in that issue. Global searches by default only look at titles and abstracts. You must use a drop-down submenu to search in the full article text, or by department, date range, or author name. Once you discover this, searches work better. Unfortunately, search results are inconsistent. (Any author will tell you that indexing a book is a dark art, and this one has more than 19,000 pages.) When searching by author, my own first articles (Oct. 1995, Dec. 1997) didn’t show up in the search results. They were only found when I searched by the titles, or specified searching the full article text for my name. I expect there are other indexing gaps, as well. So, if you don’t find what you’re looking for at first, try searching a different way. It’s in there somewhere.

Aside from that, this is a monumental accomplishment. The digitized Garden Railways is a useful tool—much more compact, easier to search, and (for many of us) more complete than our paper collections. I am quite pleased to have this available. It is useful enough that I hope the years 2016 and following will be offered as supplements someday.


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