Thursday, January 18, 2007

Some new media business advice

Hey, content providers! Want to guarantee that your ebook venture will not exist in 5 years? Create a business model by which you force end-users to wait in a queue for the "copy" of the ebook you've sold access to. I'm sorry, maybe I've missed something here, but isn't the whole point of electronic books the fact that patrons can have these items when and where they want it, rather than placing holds and recalls and all of those other annoying dead tree library antics?

Unfortunately NetLibrary doesn't seem to have gotten the memo on this one. A rare misstep for parent company OCLC (short for Online Computer Library Center, Inc.), which is normally out on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and books, NetLibrary tries to turn back the clock to the days when library patrons would literally come to blows over who got to use the Silverplatter CD-ROM next. It sucked then and it sucks now, especially when there's no reason on God's green earth for a library to agree to such crippling restrictions on ebook resources.

Maybe this is the library world's way of trying to persuade the publishing houses that we librarians are in fact not the enemy, but if the price to be paid for soothing Big Paper's nerves is committing to products that are as user-unfriendly as NetLibrary, maybe it's not worth it. I Googled "netlibrary sucks" just for the hell of it and got some independent confirmation of the kind of frustration its engendered among academic library users. Sez Leigh at Video Game Spaces:
It’s not very functional. It loads each page of the e-book (if you could call it that) separately. This means that, for one thing, it’s very slow to turn the page. It takes anywhere between 1-2 seconds to much longer than that to load the next page, depending on the time of day and the site traffic. The other aspect of the single-page loading feature is that you can’t just save the pdf to your hard drive and view it offline. No, you have to load the slow site with its clunky interface to view the book one page at a time.

That sort of interface is appropriate for something like Amazon, where it makes a lot of sense to put limits on the book viewing because they’re trying to sell a physical copy of the book. However, with an online library service it’s severely limiting. This sort of restricted viewing would be nearly last on my list of choices of how to read a book… slightly below a smelly and heavily highlighted used copy of the book, and slightly above a smelly and heavily highlighted used copy of the book that also has dead insects and vomit stains on the pages.

One of the other things that consistently irritates me about Netlibrary, other than this slow loading time, is that it logs you out after 15 minutes of inactivity. This means that you can’t take a break from reading or eat lunch or whatever unless you first write down the page number, because when you come back you’ll have to go through the lengthy process of loading the web page, logging in, finding your e-book again, and finding the page you were on, which is pretty slow because of the delay in loading each page individually.

It’s also only compatible with Windows, which means that if I want to read a Netlibrary book while I’m at school, I have to find the time to install Windows on my Macbook, which is really annoying. I’ve seen a lot of students with Macs this semester and these are all students that don’t have access to the service because of the poor design and limited compatibility. Also, it also doesn’t work for me in Firefox. I have to instead load Internet Explorer, with all of its security issues. Plus it occasionally hangs for no apparent reason (other than poor design), leaving me to spend a few minutes either trying to get it to load, or starting all over again with logging in, finding my book, and then slowly loading my page number.

Of course, the really insulting thing about Netlibrary is that they put all these restrictions in place at all, when they are a library service. I should be able to save the book to my hard drive, to be viewed offline at my convenience in the pdf reader of my choice. What am I going to do, try to sell it? You have to be a student at the library to even use the service in the first place… and who’s going to be interested in pirating academic books in the first place? It’s not going to be highly sought after like a new blockbuster film or new popular music. They should follow the model of allowing downloading, like article search sites do. Sure, I could download an article and then email it to someone… but who would I email it to that isn’t already a student somewhere — someone who’s already paying for their own access to these services? And then there’s the really insulting element of proprietary control of knowledge in the first place (emphasis mine).

I couldn't have said that any better. Not to sound too much like new media prophet Jeff Jarvis, but it's this simple: evolve or die. Any ebook scheme involving DRM so strict that you might as well check out the paper copy is doomed to failure. End of story. So that's the first and last time I'm going to use NetLibrary -- someone give me a call when publishers finally come to terms with Google and let them offer copyrighted works alongside of their growing library of public domain books, because right now this dog won't hunt. If the purpose of ebooks is to replicate all of the shitty features of paper books, why bother with the new technology at all?

Update: The Wired Blog has a timely post about the library world's flirtation with dubious forms of DRMfor its electronic content, focusing on the OverDrive Media Console. The amazing thing about both this and NetLibrary? No Mac functionality. While I'm by no means an Apple conspiracy theorist, you have to wonder how deals like these get made with public institutions and institutions of higher education.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Strange geographies

We have somewhat of an odd arrangement for materials on hold here in the Reading Room. Items which have not been picked up yet are assorted first and foremost by the date of arrival: those which come in today are shelved on their own truck (marked "Today's Delivery", natch), which after 24 hours gets bumped one slot over and re-labeled "Yesterday's Delivery". Anything that isn't picked up within those 48 hours then goes to our infamous Cage, where they will spend the next eight days if not claimed before being returned to the Stacks, the Depository, or whencever they originally came.

This would be an ideal arrangement if people picked up most of their materials within those first two days, but quite a bit of it ends up going back into our Cage, which isn't even in the Reading Room but a dedicated section of secure space within the Stacks that we have to access by leaving the room, which means leaving the room unattended when there's only one person working the desk. That and it can be a real pain in the ass to run back and forth to retrieve the material, if the patron has ordered a large quantity of them, not to mention the unnecessary wear and tear we put on the Cage's lock by turning it dozens if not more times a day.

The solution of course would be to install some bookshelves behind the desk, and I have heard rumors that such a thing may actually be in the works. Until then, however, it's the Reading Room dance for me. At least I'm getting my exercise!

(And I haven't even mentioned the twenty-odd stairs just to get in and out of the room...)

Monday, January 15, 2007

I'm just a barcodin' fool

Although I always sort of kind of regret it when the alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, I really do enjoy working on these Monday holidays. The subway is nice and empty and yet still runs reasonably on time, the lines at the Dunkin' Donuts are short, and since we don't have a Depository delivery the desk is fairly quiet unless we get a bevy of visiting researchers trying to take advantage of the rare day off from their own regularly paying jobs as faculty, students, or whatever it is that independent scholars do when they're not writing the next monograph. As it turned out this morning, we didn't get so much as one book page request through lunchtime, nor did we have to retrieve any material from the Cage for Harvard ID holders.

(Yes, we have a Cage. Where else are you going to lock up your problem patrons and/or student werewolves? Okay, just kidding about the problem patrons...)

What we did have, however, was about an entire book truck piled with returns consisting of items without barcodes. Most of these are volumes of periodicals or monographic series, both of which escaped the purview of our "Smart Barcoding Project" (our most recent attempt to get the majority of our holdings online and trackable down to the item level). So when a visiting researcher either pages these things or a Harvard patron asks to have one of them put on hold in the room, it falls on our shoulders to barcode the thing before re-releasing it back into the wild that is the Widener Stacks.

Most of the time we're only dealing with one or two volumes here and there, so my students and staff can fill out a barcode form and I'll generate the item record for it the next morning or thereabouts, but in the case of large amounts of books -- say, an entire run of an obscure 19th century serial -- I'll let the desk workers skip filling out form and just catch the books when they finally get returned. Even though we may lose a little bit of transparency by doing so, this way we can prevent tying up desk workers with filling out dozens of little yellow forms and get the material to our visiting researchers as soon as humanly possible. Besides, most of these items can't leave the Reading Room, let alone the library, so if an emergency arises and we need to locate these materials in a pinch they're not going to have gotten too far away from our Tracing staff.

This morning a couple of visiting researchers' primary source materials were coming off the Hold Shelf, which is why I ended up getting swamped with unbarcoded returns. Thus far I've been able to knock out one of the series, but I'm afraid that the other one may have to wait for tomorrow or later in the week, as not only does it have extremely irregular enumeration (not to mention mostly unhelpful data printed on their spines), but many of the items are experiencing some serious red rot as well and are in generally poor condition overall. So I had better remind myself not to wear light-colored clothing this week!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Size matters

Noticing that our patrons were constantly jamming our Swingliner trying to staple their photocopies or computer printouts at the Reading Room desk, I asked my boss to purchase a heavy-duty stapler. Unfortunately when we ordered it we also got the absolute largest staples you can possibly get for such a stapler -- 15/16 of an inch, which are meant to staple 200 pages at a time! Try to do any less than that and you end up with an ugly mass of twisted metal instead of a staple, which doesn't exactly help anyone. So needless to say the heavy-duty stapler will be taking a sabbatical while we order some new staples which don't also double as construction rivets.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Do no harm

As the supervisor of a "medium-rare" book collection, there's nothing more cringeworthy for me than to see one of our items with Post-It notes attached to the pages. While I love Post-Its as much as the next person, even the gentlest of adhesives can leave a chemical residue on the paper that can shave years off the life of a book when the glue breaks down (little critters enjoy eating many kinds of adhesives as well).

So what's the poor bibliophile to do? Use Book Darts! These thin metal clips will not only mark the page you want to remember, but since they're fashioned in the shape of an arrow you can actually use them to highlight the exact line of the text you're interested in as well. The brainchild of a former teacher, librarian, and archivist (as well as a boat builder, woodcutter, and printer!), Book Darts seem to be the perfect alternative to sticky Post-Its or who knows what other kind of horrors employed in the service of marking one's page.

I'm seriously thinking about buying a couple of boxes for the Reading Room and loaning them out as we do our bag weights.

More treasures from the Depository

Pasted to the front cover of an 1823 copy of the Boston Directory:

Charles Stimpson

Blank Book and Stationary Store,
No. 30, State Street

At the above Store are kept constantly for sale BLANK BOOKS manufactured of the best materials in the most approved style, and at the lowest cash prices, Wholesale and Retail

ALSO -- Blank Books RULED to any pattern, and bound at short notice
A good assortment of Rogers' and other Pen and Pocket Knives -- Writing Paper of all kinds,
Quills, and ready made Pens,
Wafers, of all colours and sizes,
Wedgwood and other Inkstands,
Ink and Sand Glasses -- Dividers, different sizes,
Middleton's and other warranted Lead Pencils,
Morocco and calf skin Pocket Books and Wallets,
Cloth, hair, nail, teeth and shoe Brushes
Crehore and Ford's best and common Playing Cards
Music Paper, all sizes,
Portable Writing Desks, with brass Clamps,
Bibles, School Books, &c.
Morocco Pocket Books repaired, and made to any pattern,
A general assortment of STATIONARY,
BACK GAMMON and CHESS BOARDS manufactured, and kept constantly for sale, by the dozen or single,
WARRANTED GOLD and SILVER LEAF, by the pack or single book


Monday, January 08, 2007

Feed me!

La-La-Librarian reports that the MIT Libraries now have RSS Feeds detailing the latest acquisitions in their catalog. What a great idea! This is like having a "Just In" shelf for the entire collection, something that patrons still ask for in these parts. Although the logistics of maintaining such a physical display for Widener would be for all intents and purposes impossible (contrast this however with Lamont, whose smaller collection lends itself nicely to putting its most recent arrivals up on a separate shelf), an RSS feed would be easily enough implemented. I wonder if something like this is already in the works here?

Already I've signed up for MIT's Manga and Graphic Novels feed, in anticipation of my upcoming gig for Magazines for Libraries. The best part is that as a former MIT Student, I'm entitled to get a library card there -- my wife just started working there as well, so she could always do some book paging for me!

Why I prefer snow

The glass roof of our lovely Reading Room is leaking... again! The part that always gets me is how patrons will come up to inform me that they felt raindrops, but then they'll go right back to work in the exact same spot. I guess if you move your $2500 PowerBook just half a foot to the right, it may not get wet, but really, why do you want to take that kind of chance?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The agony of "de feet"

Oh gross, there's someone in the room with his shoes off and his feet up on the table. I know it's a comfortable space, but come on now...