Sunday, September 26, 2010

Audio Book Round-up

sassafras leaf

This is a little more personal than my usual posts, but I'll proceed because it still relates to technology and libraries. Also, I wrote about something similar last year and have been keeping track of the titles I've listened to since then. (I'm still on the look-out for recommendations!) Currently I'm in the middle of The Hemingses of Monticello, which is consistent with what I've come to appreciate: histories, biographies, literary or historical fiction (particularly travel or journey-related), and most non-fiction except for self-help. I haven't really enjoyed mysteries, because, wimpy me, I don't like the additional stress in the mornings.

So here's a selection of what I tried over the past year:

* Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble
Prebble (who earlier this year won an award for his work) was truly excellent -- the voices, inflections, pacing, and accents were brilliantly done. Even the footnotes were made vastly more entertaining than they might have been otherwise.

* Checklist Manifesto - Atul Gawande, read by John Bedford Lloyd
Most of the credit should probably go to Gawande's writing, but the audio was very well done.

A lot of time and energy goes into audio books, and I hate to be a jerk critic. In all cases below except one (Larsson), my dislike of the audio book was based largely on the narrator's reading.

* The Wordy Shipmates - Sarah Vowell, read by the author

* Straight Man - Richard Russo, read by Sam Freed
(Interestingly, I read this in printed format during the summer & really enjoyed it. So this is nothing against Russo here.)

* The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery, read by Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris

* The Girl Who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson read by Simon Vance
The latter, I want to make clear, was not the problem. Simon Vance was doing wonderfully when I quit listening. Lots of people seem to love this book and the series, but apparently I do not. As I didn't make it through the entire work, I couldn't bring myself to list it with the WELL PRODUCED (recommended) titles below, but in all fairness it probably belongs there.

WELL PRODUCED (recommended)
* The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls, read by Julia Gibson

* The Alchemist - Paul Coelho, read by Jeremy Irons

* Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel, read by Simon Slater

* Bridge of Sighs - Richard Russo, read by Arthur Morey

* The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt, read by Rosalyn Landor

* The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz, read by Jonathan Davis

* Family Album - Penelope Lively, read by Josephine Bailey

* The Help - Kathryn Stockett, read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell

* The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett read by John Lee

* The Education of Henry Adams - by Henry Adams read by David Colacci
This title has been on my 'to read' list for years, and I agree with everyone who calls it an Important Book. It's particularly so for someone who works in higher education and spends vast quantities of time thinking about epistemology, as I do. Having said that, the audio definitely helped me get through it. Although Adams writes with a certain dry humor, I occasionally found my mind wandering. Colacci, who if he read another book in the same tone I might accuse of over-acting, lends life and music (not literally) to Adams's often long and winding sentences; he parses them clearly while moving at a good clip. In addition, this is one of the few audio titles I might benefit from owning and listening to repeatedly, as there is so much to think about contained in it.

A few related notes on audio books in general:

-When the person reading the book out loud is an actor, and he makes up his own rhythm rather than trying to follow the author's writing, the results are typically horrible. I notice it often happens with American male narrators.

-With a number of titles above, listening to the audio book inspired me to buy the printed book, either as a gift or for myself. This supports the idea that both audio books and public libraries support the publishing business.

-I tried a subscription to audible, and the experience was mixed. It took three tries before I was completely happy with an audio book I downloaded. (The sound quality on an older book was dreadful; another one I tried and didn't like, so I felt like I had wasted my credit.) And although the convenience is a plus, I'm not sure the subscription model works well for me. Even with the amount of driving I do, there are just not that many audio books that I want to own or listen to repeatedly. As is reflected in this post, three per year would be more than sufficient, but the current subscription packages seem to have 12 as the minimum (1 per month). The breadth of audible's holdings is getting better all the time, and if you want a recently-published title to download instantly, there's no competition. In view of the preferences I describe above, however, I might not be their ideal customer.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Systems Interoperability: An Example

Chrysanthemums opening

In the past I've been naively amazed to encounter computer software that does not make itself compatible with other programs. Even when it's due to short-sighted design rather than a result of a proprietary mentality, it's still frustrating.

A recent example from libraryland has been when I try to email the instructors whose classes use the textbook we have on reserve. Simple, right? For such a repetitive, relatively straightforward task, this currently involves a tremendous amount of manual labor on my part. I have to toggle between three different programs -- a spreadsheet, the college registration system, and my email program (Outlook). I also need the integrated library system open to double-check certain things.

If I were a very clever programmer, I might have an idea of where to start to automate this process. Unfortunately, my familiarity with this particular integrated library system (iii's Millennium) and the college registration system is poor. I can bludgeon my way around to basically do what I need in both, but I have a sophisticated understanding of neither.

Which is why I now face (1) printing out the entire manual for the integrated library system & reading it from start to finish, and (2) signing up for training on the college registration system. I'm sure the time I invest will result in many useful skills and abilities, but I'm once again surprised to find this all isn't easier. I guess we're all waiting for the day when systems are designed to be more open and interoperable. What will we do then?

Meanwhile, I'm rolling up my sleeves...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

More on the Reserves Project

Swallowtail butterfly, on campus

Judging by the positive feedback last week, I thought it might be helpful to expand on the reserves project, and to clarify some of the details:

First, the project was (and continues to be) extremely time-consuming I'd estimate conservatively that I spent about 200 hours this past summer collecting information & tracking down copies of the texts. I would like to think that in the future it might not take so long, but on the other hand there were lots of books I had to give up on because I ran out of time.

After they arrived in my office, I routed the books to the access services department for entry into our integrated library system and physical processing. I don't know exactly how many hours that took, but it was a lot of additional work for our already small, over-extended staff.

Next, I tried to get the word out. I figured the service would be pointless if nobody knew about it, but word spread like wildfire before I even had a message properly composed. Still, formally describing the project was worthwhile because as the news spread, so did the rumors and inaccuracies. In fact, I probably should have started the publicity process sooner. During the summer, I made sure the deans, program chairs, and academic coordinators knew about it, and then as the semester began the librarians announced it at academic meetings. The final push in the past few weeks involved me emailing each of the instructors who are using the 129 (and counting) books. This last, extremely targeted approach was definitely worth the effort judging by the appreciative replies.

With the service up and running, we wanted to be sure to collect feedback from the users, and so the circulation staff has been putting survey forms in the textbooks. Students return them with the textbooks, and we do not ask for their names. As of last Friday, we had gathered 62 completed feedback forms, which have been helpful to review even though they only represent a small segment of overall usage.

Based on responses to my targeted emails and the user feedback forms, it sounds like students and faculty really appreciate this service. To someone coming from the outside & surveying the project, the reaction might be "Well of course they love it, you're supplying them with a book they now don't have to buy," but from what I'm seeing this is not all about depriving the bookstore of money.

This service does not replace buying the book. The textbooks can only be used in the library for three hours per loan period, which makes it extremely inconvenient for a student to rely exclusively on the library's copy for an entire semester. What the library is providing is a stop-gap: If anything, exposure to the book makes students realize how much they need their own copies.

Keeping a copy of a required text on reserve at the library is useful for reasons beyond enabling reluctant purchasers. For example, I keep hearing about delays in financial aid. Many students rely on financial aid to purchase their textbooks. No financial aid means no money for textbooks. Students at a community college do not necessarily have a wallet full of credit cards or other financial means to cover unanticipated college expenses such as textbooks.

For better or worse, this service is bringing campus-wide attention to the library. On the bright side, it sends a message that the library is actively concerned about the obstacles students face. I'm also starting to think that the textbooks are pulling students into the library at the beginning of the school year in a way that's more immediate and relevant than a library orientation. I haven't checked, but I would guess that the number of library card applications is up, and once they have a library card I hope students might consider using the library for something else besides textbooks.

I'm also noticing that the publishers willing to supply these extra desk copies look really good. I can imagine that faculty might want to work with publishers that seem cooperative and accommodating in this way.

I'd like to end on a positive note, so I'll gloss over some of the negatives of this project new administrative mandates that the library immediately expand the service rather than evaluate and gradually extend as we are able; faculty who are annoyed because they think if we have one textbook we should have them all; students complaining that we don't have more than one copy of a textbook and say that for anyone with the energy to work on this, go for it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reserves, Newsletter, Instruction

Rudbeckia, on the table

Things are getting busy again at the library. I find my attention divided right now among the following projects:
  • The debut of the reserves textbook collection
I began this project back in May, when I created a list of textbooks that would be required for the Fall, 2010 classes. Then I tried to gather up as many of those books as possible, in order to put them on reserve at the library. (A textbook on reserve means a three-hour loan period, & in-house use only.) I had, and still have, no budget, and frankly I'm surprised how far we've gotten with it.

First, there was concern that the textbook publishers and/or the college book store would be unhappy about this project, but that turned out not to be the case. A colleague contacted the Association of American Publishers (AAP), explained what we wanted to do, and was told it would be fine. I got in touch with the book store manager, and his staff went so far as to send me a list of the college's textbook sales representatives. Then I called those reps, explained what I was doing, and asked if they would be able to send an extra copy of the textbook to the library. By and large, the representatives from Cengage, Pearson, McGraw, and Wiley were extremely helpful, taking it in stride that I was a librarian, and adding the library to their locations to send desk copies. The smaller publishers and the medical publishers were not as amenable, but by the time I realized this I already had a full shelf of complimentary textbooks in my office.

After exhausting that avenue of getting the books, I started contacting the academic departments at the college. I got in touch with secretaries, technicians, deans, program coordinators, and faculty (full-time and adjunct) to find out who was involved in textbook selection & whether they might be able to give or loan the library an extra copy. This second stage was messier and involved a lot of running around the campus and figuring out the preferred communication method for various individuals, but with some exceptions (i.e. the medical texts again) it was effective.

With this combined assistance, the result is that library now has approximately 20 percent of the required textbooks for classes on the Blackwood campus on reserve. The physical processing was an extra burden on the circulation staff, but everyone seemed willing to help & enthusiastic about the utility of this project. And so far, after the first week of class, it seems like the collection is going to be heavily used and popular.

However, I must say that it took a lot of time and energy. If I had known how much, I might have been intimidated about doing it. (The organization of the project revolves around a massive, complicated spreadsheet to keep track of everything. Thanks Google Docs!)

Also, there are a number of unintended consequences. For example, the service should ideally exist at all campuses where classes are being taught, but in most cases I was only able to get one copy of the textbook. If a certain class is taught at all three campuses, but the textbook is only available at a library on one campus, there follows unhappiness from those who feel they are denied the service.

Another complication is that the academic departments have their own various ways of deciding and managing their textbook selections. Also, the departments have different relationships and attitudes toward the library. I am still a relatively new employee at the college, and I treated the project of communicating with the academic departments as a way of getting to know people I haven't met. It was a great outreach exercise, but I haven't figured out how to streamline the process for the future.

Judging by the reaction of students and faculty, however, I think this will be a valuable service to continue in future semesters. I'm sure it will be running smoothly just in time for everyone to switch to using e-textbooks.
Due to a retirement, I inherited this task, and I've had a sinking feeling about it for a while. This is not because I don't enjoy doing this type of work; on the contrary, I could (and did) spend literally hours tinkering with fonts and playing with the layout. For better or worse, my feelings about design make it difficult to produce something of this kind and feel completely satisfied with it. I knew I wanted to make some changes from past editions, in part out of respect to the previous editor and in part because I wanted to make it less labor-intensive, but in the end I didn't give myself enough time to do as good a job as I wanted. Oh well.
  • Library instruction, with attendant LibGuides
The first library instruction sessions are on the schedule for this coming week, and these are a major part of my job. Despite still getting the jitters, I think I do a pretty good job in front of classes -- but there is a lot of work to be done in advance. I think I'm ready; I guess we'll find out...