Why you should check out Startup Weekend Toronto EDU: Library Edition

Originally posted at http://toronto.startupweekend.org/2014/03/07/why-you-should-check-out-startup-weekend-toronto-edu-library-edition/

Are you a librarian, a developer, or a designer? Can you spend the weekend of March 28 – 30 in Toronto? If so, you should absolutely check out Startup Weekend Toronto EDU: Library Edition. Read on to find out why.

First things first: what is SWTOLib all about? Developers may already be familiar with the Startup Weekend concept: people from diverse backgrounds come together and form teams to take innovative ideas from the concept stage to lay the groundwork for startup businesses. If this sounds intimidating, it shouldn’t; you’ll be surrounded by like-minded individuals who are all working toward the goal of improving libraries through technology. If you’re a librarian, you don’t need any technical experience, and developers and designers don’t need to know much about libraries. You can find all the details on the SWTOLib event page and on Twitter: @SWTOLib, but I’m here to tell you why you should join in. There are a ton of good reasons; here are 5 of the best:

  1. You’ll meet some amazing people. (Aside to librarians: developers aren’t so bad, if you give them a chance; aside to developers: same goes for librarians). You might meet your future business partner, and even if you don’t, the bonds you form here are sure to have a lasting impact on your professional network.
  2. Everyone loves libraries (except, perhaps, the mayor and his brother). Even if you haven’t been to a library in years, you can surely imagine the possibilities when free access to information meets bleeding-edge technology. Help build the future for citizens of the world.
  3. You’ll have the chance to work on cool ideas you might not have the opportunity to try out at work. Even if you work somewhere as awesome as Google, you can’t spend *all* your time doing whatever tickles your fancy, so come try out some wild ideas.
  4. You’ll be part of something massive. Over 45,000 people have participated in Startup Weekend, in countries all around the world. Or, if you’re more into exclusivity, consider that you’ll be among the very first to harness the power of Startup Weekend and aim it at libraries.
  5. No matter how many good ideas you have coming in, you’ll have even more when you’re finished. Even if you don’t actually launch a new business venture, the ideas you’ve worked on will continue to percolate in your mind for the weeks and months following the event, so make sure you connect on LinkedIn (or trade business cards, if you’re old school like that) with all the amazing people you meet, because your project may very well take on a life of its own.

So go sign up now! I’ll be there as a mentor, which means I’ll be floating around and helping groups however I can. I hope to see you there!


I’m becoming a web developer!

My contract at Seneca Libraries came to an end last month (I knew there was no chance of extension). I had a fantastic experience, and I will miss my colleagues there. Thanks, everyone!

Though I’m sad to leave Seneca, I’m excited about my next career move: I’m participating in an intensive 9-week bootcamp to become a web developer. The program is called Bitmaker Labs, and it’s located in downtown Toronto (so I can easily take the subway down each day). Starting October 21st, I will be learning Ruby on Rails (and other tools) with a group of 39 other motivated students from a variety of educational and career backgrounds.

What does this mean for GrahamLavender.com? Well, I will be posting less about libraries, at least in the short term. When researching Bitmaker Labs, I found it helpful to read the blogs of students from past sessions, so I plan to document my own experience for the benefit of prospective students. The coursework will take up the vast majority of my waking hours, so I may not post as often as I’d like, but I’ll do my best.

Wish me luck!

Wearing my Bitmaker Labs t-shirt on the rooftops of Essaouira, Morocco

Wearing my Bitmaker Labs t-shirt on the rooftops of Essaouira, Morocco

iPads vs. Android tablets vs. Surface vs. PlayBook vs. e-readers: which is best for lending to students?

As I mentioned very briefly in my post about how I landed my job through networking, I’m working on some fascinating projects at Seneca. One of these projects is to choose a mobile device for Seneca Libraries to lend out to students. I’m doing it as part of a committee, but I want to share my personal thoughts here.

The committee was asked to look at the various e-readers and tablets available, test a few of them, and then make a recommendation as to which would be best for lending. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play with a bunch of gadgets! I’ve done my own (very limited) comparison of mobile devices before, but that was a couple of years ago, so I was interested to see the latest tech. First we all did some research to decide which devices we should test, and then we ordered a few of each so we could all try them out. Here’s a photo of some of the devices we bought:


Here are some (but not all) of the devices we tested.

And here are my thoughts on each of the options. I should first mention that I own an iPad 2 and use it every day, so I may be slightly biased simply due to my familiarity with this device; however, I’ve done my best to be objective. Also, I have an Android phone, so I’m not a total Apple fanboy.

  • Sony Reader & Kobo Glo
    • Clearly, it’s unfair to compare these basic e-readers with the more full featured tablets in this group. However, they do have some advantages, such as the e-ink display, which some people find easier on the eyes than a back-lit tablet screen, and which can still be read in the dark thanks to the Glo’s side lighting. There’s also the portability factor: these were the smallest and lightest devices in the group, making them the easiest to toss in a backpack. And finally, they’re considerably cheaper than the tablets, which means we could buy more of them.
    • For someone who wants to read some fiction while on vacation, or on the subway, these devices make a lot of sense. The reading experience for epub files is excellent – the text flows to fit the screen, and the slight flicker when turning pages doesn’t bother me.
    • In terms of a device we could lend to students, I think it’s important that they be able to do research on it, and unfortunately these readers don’t connect with enough of our resources. It’s possible to download ebooks from some of our databases (such as OverDrive), but it involves first downloading the file to a computer, then plugging in the device, and then transferring it, whereas the tablets can do it all without any wires or intermediate steps. Both the Sony and the Kobo can connect to WiFi and have browsers, but surfing the web is an incredibly unpleasant experience (to be fair, neither company heavily promotes the browser; it’s sort of a hidden feature in case you’re desperate to get online and no computer is available).
  • BlackBerry PlayBook
    • We all wanted to like the PlayBook, since it’s made by a Canadian company (albeit a struggling one) and sells for not much more than an e-reader, and it does have some great features. It was the only device we tested that plays Flash out of the box (which is necessary for watching videos on SeneMA, the Seneca Media Archive, though many of our other streaming videos don’t require Flash), and the interface is intuitive and efficient. It connects by Micro USB rather than a proprietary port, which means that replacing the cord will likely be easier and cheaper, and the Micro HDMI port means it should be simple to connect to an external monitor or TV.
    • Unfortunately, the PlayBook suffers from a serious lack of apps compared to Android and iOS. For example, there’s no way to read DRM-protected ebooks from sources other than OverDrive (Bluefire Reader is not available), and the device takes a very long time to restart. And personally I find the 1024 x 600 screen format to be awkward – if you hold it portrait-style, it’s too narrow, and landscape-style it’s too wide.
  • Microsoft Surface
    • The Microsoft Surface (RT version) was promising, and indeed, it offered the most laptop-like experience. I love the built-in “kickstand,” and the large screen is great for watching videos. It’s the only device to offer a native Microsoft Office suite (no surprise there), which would be appreciated by students who have papers they’ve already started writing on their home computer, and the full-sized USB port (also unique in our testing) makes transferring files even easier. And for anyone not ready to embrace tablet-style navigation, it’s possible (but awkward) to switch into the more familiar desktop mode.
    • The Touch Cover is a great idea – it’s a keyboard that also serves as a screen protector when not in use. It attaches magnetically, and it’s easy to snap on or off. The keys themselves, however, are not very pleasant to use. They’re touch-sensitive, so you have no tactile confirmation that you’ve successfully pressed a key, but unlike typing on the virtual on-screen keyboard, it requires more pressure than a simple touch. I imagine the similarly-named Type Cover, with mechanical keys, would provide a better typing experience, but I haven’t had the chance to test one of these.
    • Although using it with the kickstand works well, I don’t like the way it feels when holding it. It’s heavier than a full-sized iPad, and, as I noted with the PlayBook, the 16:9 screen ratio is awkward for reading (though great for watching videos). And, again like the PlayBook, the app store has a limited selection, and won’t allow you to read DRM-protected ebooks. Finally, the proprietary power adapter is a bit awkward (and presumably hard to replace). I’d say it’s a great first-generation tablet, but it’s simply not the best option currently available.
  • Android tablets: Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, Google Nexus 7, and Fujitsu M532
    • Sadly, two of the three Fujitsus we bought had severe battery life issues (one wouldn’t turn on at all when not plugged in), which meant that (a) I didn’t have the chance to test one, and (b) while it’s entirely possible that they just came from the same bad batch, we decided to look for a more reliable product.
    • From the outside, the Galaxy Tab and the Nexus 7 are very similar 7-inch tablets – their dimensions and weight are almost identical. Functionally, they’re quite comparable, though on the inside there are a few important differences:
      • The Nexus has a faster processor and a higher resolution screen.
      • The Nexus uses the version of Android that comes straight from Google, while Samsung puts their own spin on the OS. It’s a matter of opinion which interface you prefer, but I would certainly opt for the pure Android experience. Samsung has their own app store, in addition to Google Play, which students may find confusing.
    • At $209, I think the Nexus 7 offers the best value of the devices we tested. Although there aren’t quite as many apps available for Android as for Apple devices, I was able to do everything I could do on an iPad (Bluefire works well for downloadable ebooks from our databases). I like the Micro USB connector and the hardware specs in general, but I can’t quite get past the screen’s aspect ratio and small size, so it’s not my pick of the litter.
  • Apple tablets: iPad 2 and iPad Mini:
    • Considering how much I’ve been complaining about the devices with smaller screens, I liked the Mini more than I thought I would. Maybe it’s the extra 0.9 diagonal inches, but more likely it’s the 4:3 ratio. In any case, although it’s considerably smaller than the full-sized iPad, it doesn’t feel cramped (and the reduced weight makes it more pleasant to hold in one hand).
    • I came across a few small glitches, especially when using the Chrome browser instead of the default Safari, but overall Apple provides a very smooth experience, and most things “just work” in a way they don’t always with the other devices. The selection of apps (both free and paid) is unmatched, so the only danger is the many hours you can spend just browsing through the App Store.
    • Edit: It was pointed out in the comments that my evaluation of the Apple products was rather one-sided, so here’s what I don’t like about the iPad. The proprietary cord is undoubtedly a downside, and the most recent cables aren’t even compatible with earlier iPads, such as the iPad 2. Android’s notification system is much better (though this is more important on a phone than on a tablet), and iOS doesn’t offer as much customization (e.g., you’re stuck with Apple’s on-screen keyboard, which hasn’t changed in years, whereas Android offers brilliant alternative keyboards). And if you use a lot of Google accounts, like Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Calendar, you’ll find they’re easier to set up, and more deeply integrated, on Android (which is a Google product).
    • Personally, I read a lot of magazines on my iPad, so I would never trade it in for a Mini. However, the Mini’s advantages in portability and price are certainly attractive, so I would heartily recommend either of these tablets.

So there you have my pick: the iPad 2 or iPad Mini. The newer full-sized iPads are more expensive and have no improvements that would be significant in the context of doing academic research; the higher resolution screen and more powerful hardware don’t matter much for reading ebooks, annotating PDFs, and watching videos (well, the videos might look better, but they wouldn’t be any more educational). However, I think it’s important to note that none of the devices we tested can do everything that a computer can do. At Seneca Libraries we already lend out laptops, and anyone who wants to hunker down and do hardcore research would be better served by even an underpowered netbook than by a mobile device that’s designed more for casual use.

Whew! That’s enough from me – does your library lend out tablets? Do you have a preference for one device over another? Let me know in the comments.

Learning to code through Codecademy: a great idea, but not quite perfected

As a librarian with a strong interest in web services, I’ve always wanted to improve my coding skills. I’m comfortable with HTML and basic CSS, and way back in the day my friends and I entertained ourselves by creating text-based adventure games in DOS using some form of BASIC, but to be honest, more advanced programming languages intimidated me a bit. So several months ago I was intrigued to discover Codecademy. The claim on their home page caught my attention:

Codecademy is the easiest way to learn how to code. It’s interactive, fun, and you can do it with your friends.

When I first signed up, lessons were only offered on JavaScript, but they have since added HTML, CSS, and jQuery (which works with JavaScript), and more content is being added on a regular basis. In fact, the site offers a course called Code Year, which was designed for people who wanted to make a New Year’s resolution to learn to code. Each week, starting from the beginning of 2012, there is a designated set of exercises for participants to complete.

Registration is free and only takes a moment (Codecademy states that they reserve the right to charge for premium content in the future, but for the moment the site is entirely free). You can give it a try without registering, but I suggest you set up an account to keep track of which exercises you’ve already completed. Each exercise consists of instructions on the left side of the page, and a window on the right with a command prompt where you can enter code and then run it. In some cases there will already be some code to get you started, and at other times you’ll write all the code from scratch. After you hit the run button, you’ll see the results of your code and a link to the next exercise will appear if you’ve written the code correctly. Otherwise, you’ll receive an error message and you’ll have to change your code to make it work. The system makes use of gamification (also popular in libraries): each time you complete an exercise you receive points, and a running tally will show at the top of the page.  Then, once you’ve finished a section of exercises, you’ll receive an achievement badge (an icon that shows up on your profile with a name representing what you’ve learned, such as “Loops in JavaScript” or “Recursive Functions”). After each new concept you learn through these exercises, there is a “project” – that is, a set of exercises where you put your skills to use building a program (such as a blackjack game or a cash register program).

I think this is a great idea. Coding is something you need to actually do in order to learn it –  I’ve tried to learn from a book and found it frustrating to be always shifting my attention from the printed page to my computer monitor. Considering the service is free, I would recommend that everyone give it a try. However, there are a few aspects that still need some work.

What I like about Codecademy:

  • It’s much less imposing than a heavy textbook.
  • Each lesson is broken down into a series of very short exercises, and as long as you’re logged in to your account, this means it’s easy to work through an exercise or two and pick up later where you left off – even if you only have a few minutes at a time to work on it.
  • When you get stuck, you can always refer to the Q&A, which is a forum where you can post questions about a given exercise and other users can post answers. In my experience, I’ve always been able to fix my issues by reading what others have already posted in the Q&A.
  • It’s web-based, which means there’s no software to install and you can log in from any computer (it even works on my iPad, but let me assure you, having to move the cursor around so much on a touch screen is not a pleasant experience).

What still needs work:

  • There is a bit too much hand holding. Too many exercises provide the vast majority of the code for you, and just prompt you to add a line or two. Although this means you can get through more content more quickly, I feel there should be more opportunities to start from scratch. I understand that programmers usually build on existing code rather than starting from a blank page, but I find I learn better when I have created something from the ground up. Some exercises are also too simple, in the sense that they tell you precisely what to type and on which line. I would rather figure more things out for myself.
  • The “hint” feature isn’t used consistently. Usually, this space is used to point you in the right direction if you’re having trouble, and it is a useful feature. However, there are a few exercises where critical information is located in the hint; in other words, there’s no way you could be expected to complete the exercise without looking at the hint. There are also some instances where the hint provides information that isn’t critical but is interesting and helpful to know, which means that if you were to complete the exercise without looking at the hint you would miss out. Of course, consistency is difficult to achieve when the lessons are created by other users, but perhaps they could have an editor look into this.
  • They take the gamification aspect a bit too far. In the early stages it seemed that I was receiving a new achievement every ten minutes or so, which made each one feel like less of an accomplishment. And you earn points for each exercise, even the ones that don’t require you to do any coding (they provide some text for you to read and then prompt you to hit the run button to move on to the next exercise). I would rather have the feeling that I earned all of my points.
  • There are some small technical issues. On a few occasions, I’ve written my code and seen it run correctly, but the error message says I need to change something. Usually when I check the Q&A someone else has had the same issue, and the answer is that you need to use a very specific variable name or change some spacing; in other words, what I’ve done is correct as far as the programming language is concerned, but the Codecademy system won’t acknowledge it. In other cases, the message tells me I’ve completed the exercise, but when I check back later there’s no green checkmark to indicate I’ve completed it. When this happens, I have to redo the exercise in a different browser.

Overall, I am certainly impressed with Codecademy, but it might not hurt for them to slap up a big “beta” sticker while they iron the kinks out. To their credit, each exercise gives you the option to give it thumbs up or thumbs down, so I’m sure they are collecting data as to what works and what doesn’t. I would suggest they take this one step further and put a comment box next to the thumb icons, since there has been more than one exercise I’ve found frustrating enough to want to write down a sentence or two in addition to clicking on thumbs down.

Have you tried Codecademy? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment below.

Top technology for students and new librarians to become familiar with

I recently attended the Ontario Library Association Super Conference, where I chatted with a ton of interesting people, including a group of student volunteers. One of these students later emailed me with a question I hadn’t put much thought into before: what types of technology should students (and new librarians) become familiar with? After sending her a list of suggestions, I decided I should share my thoughts on here as well. All the tools I’m mentioning are free (with a couple of exceptions I’ll point out) and easy to learn.

At the conference, I attended a session called Productivity in the Cloud: Evernote, Dropbox, & More, presented by Amanda Etches-Johnson, Charlotte Innerd, and David Fiander. These speakers covered a number of the things I would suggest people test out, including:

  • Doodle: This is an easy-to-use tool for scheduling meetings. I’ve used it numerous times in my professional work, usually for arranging committee meetings.
  • Skype: Great for conference calls (especially if you want to avoid paying for long distance). I’ve used this at work as well.
  • PBworks: I would definitely recommend that everyone learn how to create and edit a wiki, and PBworks is an excellent free tool. I’ve used it at work for sharing information with colleagues. A good real life example is the Library Day in the Life Project wiki.
  • Dropbox: I love being able to sync my folder and access files from my home computer, work computer, and iPad, plus anywhere with an internet connection through the web interface. Amanda says she even used the sharing function to collaborate with her co-author and editor when writing a book. I use it to keep track of my professional development and job applications.
  • Evernote: I’ve only been using Evernote for a little while now, but I can’t remember how I ever organized my life without it. It’s especially useful if you have a smartphone or tablet, but I think it’s still valuable even if you’re just using the desktop version. David says he has used it for house hunting (to keep track of realtor websites, info from his lawyer, photos of the houses, etc.) and at the bookstore when he sees a book he wants to remember to borrow from the library (he just takes a photo of the cover, and then can search by title or author later). The search function is excellent, even for text from images.
  • Google Docs: As Charlotte points out, Google Docs is all about sharing, even more so than Dropbox. If you want to be wowed, I would suggest you try the following: create a document, share it with someone, and then have that person start editing it on another computer, and you’ll be able to watch them make edits in real time. If you’ve ever collaborated with someone and ended up with a folder full of different versions of the same document (and perhaps even lost track of which is the newest version), you will love Google Docs.

Here are a few more suggestions I came up with:

  • Blogs: At the very least, you should be reading blogs on a regular basis (but I suppose I’m preaching to the choir by saying this on my blog). And if you’re reading blogs on a regular basis, you should set up an RSS feed reader – I love Google Reader, but there are plenty of good options available, either web-based or desktop-based. I’ve mentioned this many times before, but I would encourage all students (and professionals) to go one step further and start their own blog – it’s easy to do with a platform like WordPress or Blogger. Here’s an article I wrote as a student, explaining why students should blog: Why You Should Blog.
  • LinkedIn: As a future or current professional, you absolutely must have a profile on LinkedIn. When potential employers Google your name, you want them to find this and not your embarrassing Facebook photos. It also helps you keep in touch with classmates, colleagues, and people you’ll meet at conferences.
  • Twitter: Not as essential as LinkedIn, but you’ll probably want to get in on the conversation, or at the very least give it a try so you know what it means to “tweet.”
  • Social bookmarking: If you’re still saving all of your bookmarks in your browser, you should really consider a web-based option. The most popular site used to be Delicious, but they made some changes I didn’t like, so I’ve moved to Diigo. Once you’ve set up an account, try installing an extension for your browser to make it even easier to save sites for later.
  • Presentation software: The standard is PowerPoint (not free, but probably available at your school or work), so you’ll need to know how to use it well, especially when you’re collaborating. You don’t need to know about all the advanced functions, but you should be able to quickly create a simple, attractive presentation. In a pinch, you can open PowerPoint slides in OpenOffice.org (which is free), but a lot of the formatting will be lost, so I don’t recommend it as a long-term solution. A much more attractive free option is Prezi, which allows you to easily create visually interesting presentations. Edit: @adr points out that “Prezi is not indexable, not searchable, not plain text, and makes people seasick.” However, I like the fact that presentations are posted publicly online by default (even if they’re not indexable). Whether they make people seasick depends on how you create your transitions.
  • Citation management software: You should learn at least one of these programs. If your school or library gives you access to RefWorks or EndNote, go ahead and start there, but you should also check out Zotero, which is free, open source, and easy to learn. Make sure you learn how to get citations into your library, and then how to use the word processor plugin to automatically format a paper. Another popular free option is Mendeley, which has an integrated social network for researchers.
  • Screencasting software: This isn’t essential, but it’s sort of fun. Check to see whether your school or library gives you access to Camtasia or Adobe Captivate – if not, try Jing, which is a free alternative.

What else would you add to this list? Leave more suggestions in the comments.

Fun with Zotero: Scanning barcodes

I’m fascinated by citation management software. At work, I regularly teach students, faculty, and sometimes other librarians how to use EndNote, and I’ve given a couple of sessions on Zotero as well. Sometimes I doubt that the majority of information professionals share my passion, but a quick look at my blog stats tells me that my most popular blog post by far has been the one I wrote comparing EndNote and Zotero, so I must not be alone.

Both EndNote and Zotero have been improved tremendously since I wrote that post three years ago, and I try to keep up with the new features. One feature of Zotero I find particularly useful when dealing with print books is the ability to import an item by ISBN. By clicking the magic wand icon, you can enter the ISBN of a book, either by typing it in or by scanning the barcode, and Zotero will import the metadata from WorldCat. Now, this feature is actually not new, but there’s a new option for anyone who doesn’t have access to a library barcode scanner (or for when you’ve left yours at home). Scanner for Zotero is an Android app that allows you to scan a book’s barcode using the camera on your Android device and then sends the record straight to your Zotero library. The app costs $2 from the Android Market, but if you really don’t want to pay, you can download the code, which has an open source license, and then compile it yourself (personally, I was happy enough to pay the toonie).

Logo for the Scanner for Zotero app

I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now, so I thought I would share my thoughts. In general, I am quite impressed; it’s a simple app without any bells or whistles that only does one thing but does it very well. I hit a small snag when setting it up, but the developer responded promptly to my email and walked me through it (thanks, John!). Scanning a barcode is reasonably quick, though not as fast as the dedicated barcode scanner I have at work, and adding an item to your Zotero library is straightforward (the simple interface does not provide an option for saving an item to a collection within your library, but this hasn’t bothered me). One of the only options available is to choose whether to use WorldCat or Google Books to retrieve the metadata. As one would hope, the records are more or less the same regardless of the source; however, there are some slight differences. What surprised me the most was that there were differences between records imported using the magic wand (which makes use of WorldCat) and ones imported using the app when instructing it to use WorldCat. Here’s what I found when using the three different methods:

Magic wand (WorldCat):

  • Language field blank
  • No page numbers
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Only the first author is listed

Scanner for Zotero with WorldCat:

  • Language appears correctly as three letter code: eng, fre, etc.
  • No page numbers
  • Editor shows up in Author field preceded by “Edited by”
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in a single Author field

Scanner for Zotero with Google Books:

  • Language appears correctly as two letter code: en, fr, etc.
  • Number of pages appears correctly
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in separate Author fields

Both Scanner for Zotero options clearly produce better metadata than the built-in magic wand, but each of the three has its own quirks, presumably due largely to quirks in the structure of WorldCat and Google Books. I would recommend the app to any Zotero user with an Android device. Even if you don’t have a stack of books you’ve been waiting to add to your Zotero library, it’s fun to be able to zap the barcode of anything with an ISBN. Surely if you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, you must agree with my definition of fun.

NPR review of OverDrive

As a follow up to my last post, I just wanted to point out that NPR recently wrote about libraries lending ebooks (and specifically through OverDrive). The article is written from a public library point of view, which partly explains why it’s less favourable than my assessment; people don’t come to academic libraries looking for the latest best sellers, so you don’t see 100 people waiting in line for a book (students do sometimes wait around for popular books, but these tend to be their required textbooks). However, I can’t deny that having to download multiple pieces of software and having to set up multiple accounts is a bit of a hassle, especially for people who are not technologically inclined (then again, these people probably don’t want to read books on their phones, at least for now). Check out the full article here:

Review: Library E-Books Easier, But Still Hassle (via LISNews)

Why I’m finally digging OverDrive

Don’t get me wrong – OverDrive has always been a very cool idea, but now it’s appealing to me in a more concrete way. Let me start at the beginning.

OverDrive is a service that allows libraries to “lend” ebooks, audio books, music and video files, and other digital content. Clients can download these items and use them for a set period of time (usually a week or two), at the end of which the files will automatically delete themselves (well, technically they disable themselves). Like with physical items, if one client has “checked out” a file, no one else can access it until it is automatically “returned” at the end of the loan period (unless the library purchases multiple copies, which of course also mirrors the lending of physical items). Files can be downloaded onto any computer running Windows or Mac OS.

The McGill Library has offered OverDrive for a couple of years now, so I’m reasonably familiar with the service. The idea fascinated me from the beginning, but I never made any personal use of it, even though McGill offers lots of great content, from popular fiction to language learning materials to travel guides. Here’s why I didn’t get into it at first:

  • I’m not interested in audio books; I’m much more of a textual and visual learner.
  • I’m satisfied with my regular sources for music and video files.
  • I don’t want to read a whole ebook on my computer.

That last point is the key. Although as a student (and now in my work) I preferred to read articles and even ebook chapters on my laptop, I can’t see myself doing that for reading not related to school or work. Of course, many OverDrive items can be transferred to ebook readers, so I could borrow a Sony Reader and read my ebook on there, but then I would have to check the device out, plug it into my computer, and remember to return it on time. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad (indeed, I’m glad plenty of our clients make use of the service), but it was enough to make me stick to print books.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I heard that OverDrive had released an app that would allow me to read certain ebooks on my Android phone. There had already been an app for listening to audio books, which I’d tried out and probably would have used if I’d been an audio book person, but now I could download ebooks straight to my phone and read them. No (other) computer required! No messy wires to transfer the files! I had no trouble at all downloading an ebook, opening it with the OverDrive app, and navigating the intuitive interface. The folks at OverDrive did a great job on the app, and I will definitely be making use of it.

The downside is that it only works for ebooks that are in the EPUB format; I’m unable to access the many OverDrive ebooks that are in PDF format. I’m crossing my fingers that OverDrive will either (a) find a way to make the app compatible with PDF ebooks, or (b) start offering the majority of their ebooks in EPUB format, but either way, I’m glad I’m finally digging OverDrive.

Have you tried OverDrive? Ever downloaded an ebook straight to your phone? Let me know in the comments.

CLA President Ken Roberts visits McGill

Today Ken Roberts, President of the Canadian Library Association, visited us at SIS, first with a talk at lunchtime, and later for an informal cocktail reception. He is a major advocate of the Sony Reader, and he passed one around so we could all give it a try; I’ve read many reviews of this nifty device, but it was great to finally meet one in the flesh. Here’s why Ken thinks these e-book readers could benefit the library community:

  • committees could use them to share text documents and save paper
  • textbooks could be sold electronically, benefitting students by eliminating the need to carry about numerous heavy volumes, and benefitting publishers by saving money typically lost on small print runs (this is part of the reason that textbooks can be so expensive – publishers are trying to make up their losses from publishing so few of each title)
  • authors who are not well known become available to everyone, even if most physical bookstores would not carry them
  • libraries could buy the readers in bulk and sell them to users at a discounted price – this could be a viable alternative to lending the devices

However, as is often the case when new technology changes traditional business models, the e-book phenomenon does not benefit everyone. Canadian distributors and booksellers lose out when Canadians buy their books directly from the websites of American publishers. Ken is concerned about this situation, which is why he joined a task force to tackle exactly this problem.

I asked Ken whether he preferred the Sony Reader to the Amazon Kindle (which has generated an even greater buzz in the past year and a bit). His reply was that besides the obvious problem of the Kindle not being available in Canada, it also uses proprietary filetypes and forces users to purchase their e-books from Amazon. As a librarian, he said, he prefers the non-proprietary option.

The Library Student Bill of Rights by Char Booth

This article, written by Char Booth and posted on Tame The Web, is certainly not a brand new one, but it’s new to me, so I thought I would share it. I believe that library schools have a lot of work to do towards updating their programs for the 21st century, and Char has provided some insightful suggestions. I especially agree that there should be more of a focus on teaching students how to evalute, use, and develop technology, since this is a key skill for information professionals.

From The Library Student Bill of Rights:

In order to create a more vibrant and resilient profession, the students of library and information studies programs should be entitled to the following rights:

1. The right to educate. Students should receive training in learning theory, pedagogy, instructional design, and assessment methods regardless of their areas of focus.

2. The right to evaluate. Rigorous, realistic, and applied instruction in action research methods as well as techniques in environmental scanning and user needs evaluation should be available to all.

3. The right to challenge. Debate and critical inquiry between library students should be encouraged, while information activism should be considered alongside impartiality as one of the unique contributions librarians make to the information world.

4. The right to innovate. Technology evaluation, selection, experimentation, development, and planning should be woven throughout the curriculum, rather than sequestered to the “information” side of learning.