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Text CDs usually contain either transcriptions of out-of-print publications and miscellaneous records, or text written for another media (such as the text for a book that is still available). Usually CDs with text allow users to copy and paste sections of the text from the CD into a word processor or other document. Text on these CDs can either be entered by hand or converted to text by means of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. Both types of input are subject to error. Image CDs are created when the producer digitizes an image of a source (book, microfilm, etc.) and places it on the CD. Since it is impossible to search a graphic for text, publishers usually also include a text index (which may have hyperlinks to the image) and some sort of search engine. Most image CDs allow users to copy an image (i.e. a page) and paste it into other applications.

Non-genealogy CD producers often have a mixture of text and graphics, allowing users to view and search textual parts of the CD, and still view photos, sound and video clips, maps, and so forth. CDs can further be divided into those which rely on a separate program for reading and searching the CD, and those which have the viewing software merged with the material. An example of the former would be's Family Archives CDs, which require the use of the Family Archive Viewer (or Family Tree Maker) to read the CDs; the latter can be seen in ABC-CLIO's Biography Database. CDs that require the use of a reader program such as Adobe Acrobat, Folio Bound Views, or similar programs are almost always included on the CD; the Family Archives CDs do not include a viewer on the CDs themselves, but the viewer is available without charge. Check with the publisher if you are unsure whether or not a particular CD comes with a viewer.

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