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David Rothman

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Hip Video Explains All-Digital Library in Bexar County, Texas

BiblioTechPromo2[1]–Read an e-book at home or in the library, or a digital comic or graphic novel.

–Maybe even read E to your visiting  child if you’re a jailed mother.

–Use two-way Google Hangouts video to enjoy a virtual book club without leaving your house. Or go to the same event in person and see yourself later on YouTube.

–Prepare for SATs and other school tests, or reserve a meeting room to work with friends on school projects.

Learn a new language or sharpen your computer skills.

Those are some of the services that BiblioTech, the all-digital library in Bexar County, Texas, is offering. And you can watch in the video embedded below to understand better what BiblioTech is up to. Hear the music throb. The video, a gem from the Film School of San Antonio at Harlandale High School, is right on target for a young Hispanic audience. Perhaps other library systems can come up with variants using local film-making talent.

From afar, I see other good signs. More than eight months after BiblioTech opened, staffers are holding frequent in-library events, especially story times for kids, and are not just parking patrons in front of the computers. The library has doubled its e-book collection from the original 10,000—still a fraction of what national digital libraries could offer, but definite progress.  Go here for LibraryCity’s earlier mentions of BiblioTech.

Jailed moms reading to their kids

Is the BliblioTech model right for all communities? No. But with an Apple Store-like interior, BiblioTech makes young people and minorities feel at home in an area underserved by regular libraries. BiblioTech even enables jailed mothers to read e-books to their kids when the children visit. “Stay connected through reading” isn’t in the above YouTube—the young woman holding up the iPad in the video is narrator Mariah Espinosa, not a prisoner!—but how could I not mention it in the headline? What a wonderful example of a library reaching out to the community.

What’s more, BiblioTech is getting in sync with the schools. In a pilot, 16 students at Carroll Bell Elementary School were loaned Nook e-readers. Both kids and parents received training. So, so clueful an approach. Students had to return the Nooks at the end of the school year, but reportedly “can check them out again from BiblioTech for the summer.”

BiblioTech even lets you read e-books in Braille.

As of February—I intend to get an update at some point—several hundred people a day were using BiblioTech on the average.  Perhaps even localities  with established library systems might consider experimenting with a Bexar-style approach in some library-short and dangerous neighborhoods, where parents don’t want their kids walking home after dark but may not be able chauffeur them. E-books could make a huge difference, whether from a BiblioTech-style  library or a traditional one. The librarians could teach the kids about them during safe hours, and help them stock up with good reading at the library if they didn’t have WiFi at home.

Book clubs via Google Hangouts

bexarbookclubVia YouTube I watched the first BiblioTech book club held on Google Hangouts. A hint of the possibilities for my own city, Alexandria, Virginia?

My big hope is that Bexar and other libraries will pay more attention than now to the interests  of male readers and  play up plenty of nonfiction as well as novels. How about real-life adventure stories or biographies of Latino sports heroes, for example? I’m also curious about local high school coaches and other local athletic  figures helping to talk up  books and participating in book clubs.

If that happened, promo videos like Bexar’s could mention sports angles and others of interest of young people. This would be a great way to increase participation in the clubs. Nothing against good literature—just the reverse! But the big priority should be to boost engagement with the community at large, not merely the kinds of people most likely to be library regulars. Interest in literary novels can come eventually for many new patrons. Maybe it’s even time for a graphic novel book club. Besides, who says some popular-level books can’t also be good literature in their own ways?

reposted under a CC license from LibraryCity

‘Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription’ – Forbes

TimWorstallLibraryHater1[1]Amazon’s new subscription plan for e-book readers is already ammo for library-haters. Check out this gem in Forbes online.

The headline I’ve quoted reflects the precise sentiments of the article: “Let’s just close down the lending libraries and buy every citizen an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.”

Granted, writer Tim Worstall is a British loony despite his appearances in mainstream publications (in both the the U.K. and the States). But you can bet that the anti-library faction in America is alive and well even if it normally isn’t as direct as Worstall.

Consider the travails of the local system in Troy, Michigan. Alas, books have suffered especially in many places. In my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, Amazon’s number one reading city, the budget for books and other collection items is around $2.60 per capita. National spending on public library content is a mere $1.2 billion or so a year, or less than the worth of the “poorest” billionaire on the Forbes 400 list.

While most Americans like the idea of public libraries, this does not necessarily mean their politicians do, as shown by House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s dream of killing off the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryan was thinking along the same lines as Worstall.

More lessons here for the Digital Public Library of America? Please, DPLA; listen to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies. If you love public libraries, you’ll immediately drop the P word from your name—lest our own Worstalls eventually use it to say local libraries are redundant. Call yourself what you actually are, the Digital Academic Library of America. Don’t preempt the creation of a real “public” system.

Even a genuine national public digital library system should not include “public” in its name. Let “public library” remain what it is in effect—a brand name for local systems.

Needless to say, genuine public libraries of any kind are Amazon not; and they are not mere Netflix equivalents, either. Their services are far more extensive.

Instead of closing public libraries, both Americans and people elsewhere should be moving in the opposite direction and use them to address the literacy issue and others. See LibraryCity’s proposal for a national digital library endowment that could help pay for such activities as cell phone book clubs (the offering would be far more varied and substantive than the name would suggest).

Especially in the wake of the new Amazon service and the Worstall commmentary, an ALA resolution in favor of the endowment is long overdue. I don’t see the “Unlimited” service as an immediate threat; the collection is too limited. But why wait, given all the other reasons, including the ongoing phase-out of the Gates global libraries initiative? The ALA should act ASAP.

reposted from Library City under a CC license

Amazon, please unmute the Kindle Paperwhite: No need for the workaround shown in this video, when TTS chips cost next to nothing!

At first glance, the MIT-designed FingerReader shown in this video looks intriguing for people with print-related challenges. But major catches exist, beyond the robotic voice. Using the little text to speech reader is slow going, as you’ll notice if you play the video below.

If nothing else, why must even experimenters feel compelled to try the FingerReader on the popular Amazon Paperwhite or other ereaders without text to speech?

Shouldn’t the ereader gadgets have TTS in the first place? Without a loudspeaker or at least a headphone jack, the Paperwhite can’t offer even a primitive equivalent of Apple’s Voiceover. Amazon spruced up the Paperwhite’s recent predecessors with text to speech; why the exception?

A solution would be easy. Just give the Paperwhite text to speech. You don’t need a lab full of MIT Ph.D.s, or even one such brainiac, to puzzle this one out. The cost would be only a few dollars at the most and perhaps just a fraction of that. I hope that the FCC, which has shown an interest in these matters, will crack down severely on Amazon if it isn’t more decent here.

FCC should go nuclear if Amazon won’t act

No, I haven’t the slightest problem with a bit of a delay to let Amazon tweak the Paperwhite. But after that, the FCC if need be should go nuclear. The American Library Association, as  a long-time advocate of accessibility, should continue to bird-dog these issues, given the large number of library patrons dependent on Kindles. Aren’t there regulations anyway to promote accessibility of library-purchased computers—even if most people rely on their own ereaders and other devices?

For good measure the ALA and the FCC should lean on Amazon and other companies to offer a good all-bold text option (if possible with adjustable font weights) to help readers who prefer high-contrast black on white. Such a change would also allow people to use less battery power.

My hope is that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and rivals will be smart enough to stay ahead of the feds, the ALA and public opinion. Other Amazon products are more friendly than before to people with disabilities. Let’s see some progress here, too, Jeff!

Callous and bad for business

If Amazon can’t bear the thought of a loudspeaker adding even a tiny amount of size or weight, it should at least include a slim headphone jack. Instead of listening to mediocre TTS, people with disabilities could enjoy stellar voices from Ivona, a subsidiary of Amazon. My favorite Ivona voice is the incredible British-accented  “Amy” (follow the link to hear her).

Why is Amazon so callous toward the sight-impaired, given all the good that corrective measures could do?  Absence of TTS from the Paperwhite is actually bad business. Plenty of Amazon customers without serious sight impairments or other disabilities could benefit from TTS during commutes or exercise sessions, and they might not even grasp the possibilities if TTS didn’t exist on their machines to begin with. Devoted Amazon fans could start books at home and continue them on the road. Result? More time for reading—and a bigger market for the books Amazon sells.

Simply put, TTS is a way for books as a medium to be more competitive. The benefits of universal TTS will far, far outweigh losses from sales of professionally narrated audio books. Who knows? They might even help them in some cases. No one can do a human act better than a human, and TTS is a great way to promote the benefits of listening when tradition reading isn’t easy or even possible.

eReaders vs. Tablets: The cost factor

Here’s something else to consider. For many reasons, including cost, dedicated E Ink readers like the Paperwhite may be better for many ebook-lovers than Fire-style tablets would be. Isn’t Amazon supposed to be a customer-centric outfit? Why must marketers’ dogmas of segmentation—or whatever the excuse—come ahead of the needs of real humans living on tight budgets?

Related: TechCrunch report on the Paperwhite update rumored for 2014. No TTS mentioned in the article itself, alas—although at least two commenters want it back.

Note: First, I can’t guarantee that the gizmo in the video is a Paperwhite (it could be or a model with similar looks). Just the same, the big point here remains: this is an inelegant, kludgish way of offering TTS. Second, I  heartily approve of the existence of the FingerReader and assume that the MIT researchers want it to be a lot better. That’s not the point here. Rather, it’s to show the cruelty and stupidity of muting the Paperwhite. Third, let me make it clear I’m in many ways pro-Amazon. On the whole I’m a fan of the company’s hardware except for the TTS issue and, of course, the highly proprietary tech and related problems that come with Kindles (just try buying the wonderful Mantano ebook reader from the Amazon app store for a Fire HDX—even though the Amazon-supplied version will work on many other machines, and will on the Fire itself if you install it from other sources).

reposted under a CC license from Library City

Should public libraries give away ebook-friendly tablets to poor people? $38 tablet hints of possibilities

nextbook[1]Young people love suitable paper books, ideally new, that they can own.

Could the same idea work for econo-tablets that public libraries gave away to low-income families—with a big, fat, e-book-related icon smack in the middle of the home screens? Yes!

Don’t just hand out gizmos, though.

Let the tablets come with old-fashioned encouragement from public and school librarians. Technology is no panacea. Kids should be able to own paper books, too, in fact, not just gadgets.

But e-book-capable tablets, especially with national digital library systems in place, could multiply the number of books matching students’ precise needs.

Paper books could serve as gateways to E, and then children and parents could digitally follow their passions to the max, whether for spaceships, basketball, or knitting. A “quiet” feature could turn off Facebook-style distractions when tablet users wanted to focus on books. Protective rubber cases could guard against drops.

Just loaners for newbies

The tablets might be just loaners at first. You’d own one for real only after you had benefited meaningfully from an online or offline book club, or had watched and absorbed educational videos, as determined by librarians or teachers. Also, you would have to show knowledge of the the basics of the machine, especially for e-booking and finding useful information on the Web, not just entertainment sites.

Yes, the tablets should be for e-books as much as possible, rather than just YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and, ideally in time, a library social network called UsBook. But parents and children could also improve themselves through the just-mentioned educational videos. The videos could reinforce teachers and librarians’ in-person tips on such topics as the best way to teach reading to a child. Librarians and public broadcasters in Colorado have already created literacy-related videos for the Web. Here’s an outstanding example. “Five Plump Peas” not only teaches words but also helps parents develop children’s motor skills and others.

Colorado uses videos to help teach parents to teach kids.Likewise, the videos could feature writers dear to young readers and help the children and their parents learn to use the tablets properly. Hate to read e-books on a black-on-white LCD screen? Find the background glow irritating? Well, the best e-book software lets you see white letters against a dark background if you want. Alas, typical e-book readers probably aren’t aware of such a “switch,” and instructional videos could make its existence known from the start.

E-book tips via videos from your friendly local public library

If nothing else, the videos could encourage parents and children to use the “quiet” feature when reading, and to change type sizes and styles to suit individual tastes. The videos also could help people cope with software crashes, inevitable with the current crop of low-cost machines. Crashes are not that big a deal if you know what to do. In addition, patrons could learn how to hook a low-cost keyboard up to their tablets for word-processing for school or work. Upscale Macs with silk-smooth responses for your fingers? Of course not. But an econo-tablet and cheapie keyboard would beat no tablet at all when an English or history paper was due, and videos could help students and other patrons master these basics.

Also, the tablets’ video capabilities could enable low-income patrons to link up online with local social service agencies and health clinics, not just local public libraries—one more way to cost-justify the giveaways. They might even display full-motion pictures of agency staffers aiding the patrons, just as Amazon’s May Day shows customer support people helping them. The video chats could be two-way when patrons wanted this. On top of everything else, low-income people could use the tablets for job applications and even remote interviews, as well as viewing job training videos.

In the past, tablet giveaways would not have been cost-effective, even with the various multiple uses of tablets and even with careful screening of recipients. But now $38 computers with seven-inch screens are on the way to the U.S. from Datawind, which anticipates a $20 price in two years. I’ve just ordered a UbiSlate 7Ci (the $38 does not include the $10 shipping), raved about by an existing user, and will write more later. I’ll keep my expectations low for the display, with a resolution of 800 by 480.

Editor’s Note: I have ordered one as well. -Nate

Meanwhile I’ve tested a dual-core Nextbook from eBook Fun with 1024×768-resolution on an eight-inch screen—picked up at Walmart for $100 (sometimes prices are higher), a fraction of the cost of a new iPad, even the earlier Mini models. The resolution is about the same as on an iPad One, which appeared with a 9.7-incher. The Nextbook’s ballyhoo on the Walmart site includes the video shown at the start of this post, with a different opening screen shot. Here are additional details on the Nextbook and the general concept of libraries giving away tablets.

Rated an average of four stars by Walmart shoppers online, the Nextbook runs Kindle software and the included Nook app well enough for most people, and to my surprise, I can even read from images of the paper editions of Google Play e-books and move around without much delay while using the slider. Moon+ Pro Reader runs well; at least no surprises so far. Both it and Google Play Books also work with text to speech—I’d installed the Acapela speech engine and the British-accented “Peter” voice. OverDrive library software at times can be sluggish; pages don’t always show up instantly on the screen. But it is still acceptable, and OverDrive’s alternative cloud service works better.

No iPad but surprisingly good for the price

Granted, the Nextbook is definitely not the equivalent of a recent iPad, even by the usual standards for machines with the Android operating system. Memory is only 8GB; RAM, just 1GB; and the processor chip is a now-mediocre 1.5GB. Battery life for e-book-reading is probably only a few hours, based on others’ impressions. The Nextbook runs Android 4.1, not the latest, 4.4.2, and the video camera’s quality is as lousy as you’d expect. But the Nextbook does come with 802.11b/g/n WiF. Netflix and YouTube at least were very playable on the Nextbook, suggesting that, yes, this can be useful for instructional videos as long as the volume on the videos is adequate. Via the included Boat browser and Google’s Chromecast (available for around $30 if you look around), I could even send an HDTV signal to a flat-screen TV. That sounds like overkill for the cash-strapped. But consider the possibility of instructional videos on large and increasingly affordable TV screens, more than a few owned  by low-income people before they became poor. I didn’t test the Nextbook’s HDMI plug—my adapter isn’t handy at the moment—but that option is presumably usable even now.

Significantly, better and faster models of econo-tablets of various makes will be on the way, and libraries should be looking ahead and experimenting on a small scale (please don’t buy thousands of Nextbooks or others, and please take it for granted that lots of lemons will be among them and arrangements with vendors should allow for this!). Walmart is selling other tablets  for as little as $50 for a four-inch model (three stars) and $58 for a seven-incher (four stars). Of course, this isn’t an ad or any kind of endorsement for Walmart in any respect.  The tablet from Walmart is a major example here because the stores are so ubiquitous in the States and are in many other countries.

Let’s also envision some libraries and schools buying up scads and scads of refurbished iPads. They shouldn’t let vendors dictate their technological strategies and should avid chasing after the latest, greatest and most expensive technology, particularly for mass purchases. Instead our public agencies should strive to offer the most value for the tax dollar, and I see the ownership strategy as one way to do this. The creation of national digital libraries, with a wide range of e-books, apps and other items useful even to people with older machines, would help. Let patrons focus more on books, other  content and basic concepts and worry just a little less about the latest hardware. Buy recent machines for in-library use and as nonownable loaners in the beginning (later the new will turn old—right for borrowing). However, for home use, concentrate more on getting patrons excited about what they can do with tablets and other devices of any age. They themselves can buy newer hardware when they’re able to afford it for themselves. An older machine is still a good, dramatic change from nothing at all.

What’s more, in the end, even newer machines, better than today’s, will sell for a pittance, so old vs. new won’t quite matter as much in the end. One more caveat. Don’t buy old for the sake of old if support costs will be too high. If schools and libraries bought older iPads on a large enough scale, perhaps they could work with Apple and other companies to keep support infrastructure intact and security measures up to date.

Yet another possibility would be to give away inexpensive E Ink readers, which I suspect will go for well under $30 or $40 new in the next few years. In fact, libraries ideally could let patrons choose between tablets and E Ink readers.

Gadgets as promoters of the book culture

Some snobs undoubtedly will be aghast at the prospect of plebes enjoying e-books, especially on less-than-the-most-modern machines made for Walmart shoppers. So be it. The idea here is to encourage young people and their role models, their parents, to read and learn and otherwise improve their lives (even if the hardware isn’t in the luxury class). This thinking almost surely is in line with the opinions of a prominent U.K. research who recommends e-books as as one way to spur children to read and thus boost their academic achievement in general.

Despite all the laments on the decline of the book culture—and, yes, I agree with the warnings despite many encouraging new developments, such as the creation of some very smart book blogs, some written by professional reviewers—it is not too late for libraries to play a prominent role in restoration of the culture to full strength. Experiments with giveaway e-book devices should be on the laundry list of corrective steps. Just make certain that the devices come with access to the right content and with an abundance technical support from librarians or, on technical matters, vendors or nonprofits. And if arrangements can be made with cable companies or other Internet providers for connectivity at home, not just the library, then so much the better. Unlike so many of the well-off literati, low-income people lack time to visit libraries constantly in person, especially if they are juggling multiple jobs or are just too plain fatigued from work, as is so often the case. In particular, the sick and disabled—two categories overlapping often with “poor”—suffer when libraries neglect patrons beyond their walls.

Perhaps groups such as Reading is Fundamental could participate with libraries in the borrow-and-own programs for the tablets. Donations from multiple companies—let’s not turn this into simply a promotion program for one vendor like Amazon, despite all the potential positives—might also be useful as a start. Furthermore, if the cable companies take an interest and provide tablets as part of their connectivity programs while addressing the programs’ current shortcomings, I am fine with the PR benefits they’ll reap. But kids and families first! Societal benefits ahead of promo, please.

reposted under a CC license from Library City

eBooks and Public Libraries vs. Cruise Ship Subsidies in Miami-Dade County, FL

MiamiJessicaNunez1[1]Jessica Nunez and her family are just the kind of people who could benefit from well-financed physical libraries, paper books, the digital variety, loans of e-readers, and technical support along with old-fashioned inspiration from dedicated career-librarians.

“A lot of parents don’t have computers at home or they can’t afford ’em,” she told a TV interviewer in September after the besieged  Miami-Dade library system won a temporary reprieve from massive cuts in hours and jobs.

Ms. Nunez herself is among the millions of cash-strapped Americans counting on public libraries to help them.

But will Miami-Dade come through for the Nunezes? That remains to be seen, as the public officials ponder how to deal with the library system’s $20-million budget deficit projected for the next fiscal year. One idea is to put bookstores in libraries. But how much will that help finance them? It’s a little like the library director in my own hometown—Alexandria, VA, bizarrely labeled “the most well-read city in the U.S.,” based on Amazon purchases—dreaming of making serious money from Amazon-related affiliate fees.

Here’s a more efficacious remedy for Miami-Dade. Get your priorities straight. The locality’s annual budget is more than $4 billion, so the $20 million is a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.  It doesn’t help that the government has reduced the library millage rate, creating an artificial fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, as noted by Elaine de Valle (“a.k.a. ‘Ladra’”), a former Miami Herald reporter, writing in a different context, Miami-Dade officials have voted to give away $3 million in “marketing incentives” to bring cruise passengers to Miami. Huh? Isn’t that what Norwegian Cruise Line would do naturally? Perhaps even more significantly, Ladra has raised questions about the county’s oft-costly fondness for  outsourcing contracts. Any possible corruption, any possible quid pro quos between political donors and public officials, would be in the best local and state traditions.

MiamiCruiseShip_thumb1[1]In a smarter world, Miami-Dade would respond rationally to library needs vs. those of cruise-line shareholders and local government contractors. But dream on. More than a few citizens feel overtaxed as it is, and a new poll warns that while they love their libraries, only 44 percent of respondents would go along with a tax increase and 20 percent are undecided. Hmm. Increase? In the case of the library millage rate, we’re talking about restoration to an earlier, more realistic level. It is now .17 compared to .35 in 2000-2001 and .96 in 1988-1989 (library construction financing?). Meanwhile, as the Miami Herald’s Patricia Mazzei astutely reported, the mixed message about taxes jibes with a recent Pew poll showing strong current support of libraries, but warning of future threats. LibraryCity reached similar conclusions. So did Publishers Weekly.

But how about local donations in Miami-Dade to make up for public funding shortages, aggravated by the state of Florida’s cutbacks in library aid? Forget it. “Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 4,” Ms. Mazzei says of an effort to collect them via envelopes set out with tax bills, “the library had received 247 donations totaling $6,573.49. The library budget: about $50 million.”

Granted, not every city, county or state is frittering away money for purposes like cruise line subsidies. Countless governments are truly, truly frugal, as opposed to caving into well-connected business people keen on sticking their snouts into the public trough; and I salute the many honest politicians who are in fact friends of libraries.

But whatever the reason, America’s public libraries in fiscal year 2010 could spend just $4.22 per capita on paper and digital books books and other kinds of content, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Libraries can respond in several ways, starting with advocacy aimed at politicians and others controlling their budgets. More focus on e-books and other digital content, along with laws to discourage price gouging by publishers, would help as well. E is the most efficient way to distribute items, while also opening up new possibilities in areas such as interactivity and book-to-book linking. Many patrons now demanding paper books would be open to e-books if the hardware and tech support were available to the extent they are in Bexar County, Texas, another heavily Hispanic locality, which has made hundreds and hundreds of loanable e-readers available, along with friendly guidance from young, gung-ho staffers. Give the underfunded libraries of Miami all the resources they need to build on their existing digital efforts! E-book-capable gadgets are like hearing aids: you need to consider the needs of different users and help them befriend the technology. Of course, libraries are about much more than books, as I keep emphasizing. But they are their main calling card, and with shrunken collections, libraries could lose some support among voters  expecting enough back in return for their taxes. Miami’s per capita spending on library content, in all formats, is less than half the national average.

Yes, in the end, it all boils down to money. Given that the super-rich own so much of the country, is it not fair to suggest that they finance a publicly run national digital library endowment? I use the P word deliberately, since a public endowment would be more transparent and more responsive than alternatives. The endowment would be far, far from a full solution to America’s library crisis, but it could do a lot more good more than bookstores in libraries, even though I’m certainly game on libraries trying the store route as well, especially if private bookstores aren’t nearby. Every little bit helps. But just ask private bookstores about their own profit margins,

The fiscal woes of the Miami-Dade libraries are deeply systematic and are not likely to go away soon, and the same can be said of countless other libraries victimized by myopic local governments. Jessica Nunez shouldn’t have to wait. How can we not create both the endowment and intertwined public and academic library systems online to respond better to America’s library needs?

reposted under a CC license from Library City

New Pew survey helps show need for full-strength digital libraries— especially if we’re to help Hispanics, African-Americans and the poor.

Should Pew researchers survey pewcharthispanicsandblacks[1]Americans on the need for a national digital library endowment and two separate digital library systems—-one public and one academic? Definitely, if you extrapolate from a new Pew poll.

Those issues do not directly come up in the survey, which showed robust support for public libraries. But Pew does find that “books and media” are “very important” library offerings for 54 percent of the country as a whole. That is the highest of nine categories, and the endowment could be a major funding source for the e-books and other digital items in increasingly high demand.

Alas, only around 13 percent of U.S. public libraries’ operational spending goes for actual content.

pewcharthispanicsandblacks[1]

Furthermore, as of FY 2010 the libraries were spending only $4.22 per capita on content, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That was a mere $1.3 billion—about the cost of just one military office complex in Northern Virginia.

A national digital library endowment could help multiply the number of books and other items available through local libraries, which could cobrand digital catalogues from a national collection. Digital items come with inherent efficiencies, such as ease of storage and elimination of such needs as costly physical storage, shelving and manually performed checkouts. Paper books could still exist. But let’s expand particularly in ways offering the most value for library patrons and taxpayers.

Libraries are and should be about much more than books, but no matter how often some librarians talk of “repositioning” or whatever the most fashionable marketing term is nowadays, it would be folly to downplay the importance of “book warehouses”—electronic or physical. Books are public libraries’ calling cards.

pewchart1_thumb[1]

In other significant findings, Pew reports that 62 percent of African-Americans and 67 percent of Hispanics say “books and media” are “very important,” compared to 54 percent for the whole country. And 61 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year selected “very important,” a heftier percentage than the 49 percent among those with incomes of $75,000 and higher. A racial and class gap when it comes to library content?

Yes, and the Pew results jibe well with the facts in my own city, Alexandria, VA. It’s the country’s Number One city in the latest Amazon ranking of books bought per capita, even though there were only 7.5 library checkouts per capita compared to 13 in neighboring Fairfax County in FY 12. We know well-off Alexandrians are reading. But what about their poorer neighbors, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, who almost surely rely more on libraries for content?

Significantly, Alexandria’s per capita spending on content is still less than the national average despite all the BMWs around here, even after we library advocates fought off planned cuts.

OK, so what’s Washington doing about popular-level library e-books  for the typical patron? Not nearly as much as it could despite some notable exceptions. I voted for Barack Obama and am a lifelong Democrat. But his record on digital public library issues so far is not distinguished. The Obama Administration in effect has farmed out discussion of national digital matters to a nonprofit originated as a project at Harvard Law School, the President’s alma mater. The Digital Public Library of America is the start of a very, very promising academic system for the U.S., but as the beginning of a public collection serving mainstream needs, it is a failure.

The DPLA’s real interest has been in assembling links to public domain books and historical documents and other items—not in creating a funding-and-acquisitions process to help buy the recent copyrighted books that public library patrons overwhelmingly prefer. Susan Flannery, director of libraries in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has said: "The books we purchased in last 12 months went out an average of 6.5 times last year,” while “The rest went out 2.44 times.”

The real solution would be a mix of a national digital library endowment and two digital library systems—a public system focused on mass needs and an academic one building on the DPLA’s highly useful work.

Let the twin systems collaborate endlessly and share plenty of content, somewhat overlapping boards and a common digital catalogue and a joint infrastructure and technical services organization (ideally with help from a buyout of OverDrive, the main supplier of library e-books). And let everyone be able to access the academic system directly. But please do not confuse the main missions of public and academic libraries and try to turn the former into the latter or even risk doing so in the future. No public library gentrification, please.

A good start for the bright and well-intentioned people at the DPLA would be to rename the organization the Digital Academic Library of America and work with COSLA, a legitimate “public” library organization, to start a separate public system called simply the National Digital Library of America. Don’t use “Public Library” in the name. Save that phrase for the branding of local libraries.

More attention to these issue from the U.S. media and top policymakers would be welcome. Few Americans are truly aware of the pittance that our country spends of public library content—the very stuff that counts so much in  bringing them to libraries in the first place and help fuel such initiatives as family literacy campaigns.

Even if the library crisis isn’t a burning issue for the most of the American press right now, perhaps the Pew Foundation can poll Americans on the endowment question while adding a little background to put the issue in perspective. Here are two suggested questions:

1. “American public libraries are spending only around $4.20 per person on public library books each year. How much do you think the figure should be?” Pew could report the average numbers for the country as a whole and also by region and for various ethnic and income groups.

2. “Do you like the idea of a national digital library endowment—started almost entirely with voluntary contributions from the super rich? It would help public libraries buy more e-books and also help pay for the training and hiring of school librarians, among other things.”

With or without a Pew poll, shouldn’t Washington care?Consider this finding from Pew: "95% say that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading." Via the endowment and twin-systems concepts, here is a chance for President Obama and Congress to reinvent public libraries them in ways that dramatically advance those popular goals.

Furthermore, given the interest of both major parties in courting Hispanic-Americans, it would be a lost opportunity for both to neglect the content issues of special importance to this ethnic group. If nothing else, remember that in the next few decades, nonHispanic whites will be a minority of the U.S. population.

Let me add that laws to prevent content-providers from gouging libraries would also be desirable. E-books are inherently more efficient to distribute than paper books are, and we want to make certain that publisher don’t get in the way of this. No anti-publisher sentiments, though—just the opposite. In fact, we’re talking about huge opportunities for publishers and ideally even a Library Publisher complex in time, if the digital library systems prove as popular as I’m confident they will be. That’s where the money is for both sides.

reposted under a CC license from Library City

Ouch! Text to speech is also AWOL from THIS year’s Paperwhite from Amazon

kindle paperwhite 2013Drat! The newest Kindle Paperwhite E Ink reader from Amazon is still missing text to speech—among the very features Jeff Bezos touted when he unveiled the second Kindle in 2009. Doubt me? Just look at the Paperwhite users guide and see what’s AWOL.

Click here for a better view, with a list of not-overlooked improvements in the newer Paperwhite model. It’s to start shipping Sept. 30. Like the first Paperwhite, the basic version will sell for $119 and up, and supposedly the newer PWs will offer “higher contrast” between text and background.

I found last year’s Paperwhite to be still somewhat lacking in contrast despite a noticeable improvement over earlier models. On the positive, the just-added page flip feature looks intriguing, the touchscreen is supposedly more responsive, and page turning is said to go much faster.

I myself still miss the old mechanical page-turners (maybe the new Paperwhite will change my mind in that respect). But it’s the lack of TTS that most peeves me even though, yes, I’ve ordered one to keep up with Amazon’s E Ink technology, despite my general preference for tablets.

Why didn’t Bezos and friends listen when more than a few TTS stalwarts spoke up against the lack of a read-to-me feature in last year’s Paperwhite? What about people with reading disabilities? Or joggers, treadmill regulars and other exercisers for whom TTS is a safer way to go? (I myself am into treading big time.)

Also, what about commuters who’d like to hear a good book on the way home from work? I realize that most customers aren’t as disappointed as I am. But maybe they’d change their minds if they actually tried TTS technology; the voices are far more humanlike than before—one more reason for Bezos not to mute the Paperwhite.

The supposed solution for neglected TTS fans last year was the Kindle Keyboard, but then Bezos has dropped that model; at least I don’t see Amazon selling new ones. I suspect that the wishes of his marketers prevailed over those of his customers, regardless of all the publicity we’ve read about his customer-centric ways.

Very possibly he and his crew are keen on sending people in the direction of the more expensive Kindle Fires and also encouraging them to buy audio books from Amazon’s Audible division, as well as purchase “enhanced” versions of Fire e-books with add-on audio from human narrators. TTS chips would have cost maybe two dollars. Even just a headphone jack, without a speaker, would have been better than nothing—if need be, even an extra-slim one that required an adapter to use with a regular headphone.

If nothing else, Amazon could boost its revenue by offering a TTS-capable Paperwhite at a higher price, with optional voices available, such as the British-accented “Amy,” one of the glories of the Ivona TTS company, which Amazon now owns. Is that idea so difficult to grasp, Bezos? I’d be willing to pay as much as $30 or $35 more, so you wouldn’t weep quite so loudly over my failure to buy audiobooks, and I’m guessing that many TTS stalwarts would feel the same way. Simply put, not just in human terms but also in business terms, it’s illogical to diss loyal customers who can’t imagine life without TTS.

Given the heavy use of Kindles by public library users, I hope librarians will speak up. Needless to say, the muting of the Paperwhite is one of many reasons librarians should work toward their own ecosystem rather than trusting vendors like Amazon. I love Amazon’s better side and I’m a huge fan of the company in general, despite my concerns in the TTS area and some others such as treatment of workers.

Ideally Bezos and his people will see the disconnect between his famous customer-centricism and the muting of the Paperwhite and wise up in 2014 when it’s Paperwhite time again.

This post originally appeared on LibraryCity.org, the Creative Commons-licensed blog of TeleRead founder David Rothman.

Review: Voice Dream Reader e-reading app

voice dream reader itunesA Catch-22 dogs those of us who most often read e-books visually but also want to hear them when we’re exercising or driving.

The usual e-bookware doesn’t always come with or work with text to speech capabilities. Even if it does, we can’t control the aural part as closely as we’d prefer.

I myself like the Moon+ Reader Pro Android app, and I’m in love with the added-on “Amy” voice, a British-accented delight from another developer, Ivona, now an arm of Amazon. But I can’t revisit already-viewed text quickly enough while I’m hearing audio by way of the Moon-Ivona combo.

A special read-aloud program isn’t the VoiceDreamGeneral1[1]ultimate answer, either, since I’ll then be stuck with a weak app for general use. Even based solely on text-to-speech performance, in fact, this category of software can disappoint.

Enter the Voice Dream Reader app for iPads, iPhones and iPod touches. At $10 it’s more expensive than the average app but provides enough value to justify the cost.

Winston Chen (family photo below), a Boston-area man and a middle-aged IBM alum, created VoiceDream during a year’s stay on an Arctic island where his wife was teaching. Voice Dream is not a full solution to the above dilemma. But it comes enticingly close, letting me e-mail notes and snippets and enjoy some other important features of a full-strength reading app for general use—while at the same time giving me more precise control over the spoken text than other TTS alternatives do in the iOS world. Significantly, more book-like paging is on the way as an alternative to the existing scrolling.

A list of Voice Dream’s glories is here. The app even includes its own Web browser, as well as the ability to find and download Project Gutenberg books with minimal fuss, and Chen tells me he’s open to working with the Digital Public Library of America by way of an API, which could mean similar capabilities. Voice Dream even hooks into Dropbox’s search feature. And print-impaired people using Bookshare can also benefit from integration.

The list of positives goes on and on. I still pang for the charming “Amy” to show up in Voice Dream despite her Amazon connection and the risk that the company’s monopolistic tendencies will overcome a genuine chance to earn goodwill. (Hey, Bezos! You can do the right thing.) But meanwhile, VD—there, I said it; sorry!—offers a built-in Acapella speech engine and a free “Heather,” an American-accented voice. You can still hear the robot in “Heather,” but she is almost as good as “Amy” (herself not quite 100 percent human-sounding). At least 60 voices in 20 languages are available for a few dollars each: “English, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, Czech, Catalan, Polish, Turkish, Greek, and Arabic.” More languages and other major enhancements for Voice Dream, as both a visual and audio reader, are on the way, including a mode to enjoy books one page at a time rather than scrolling.

InstapaperVoiceDream[1]Already Voice Dream is living up to its name for members of the accessibility community, in addition to those without disabilities.

Not everyone likes everything in the app, to go by the reviews of the paid version in the Apple app store, even if the average rating is a respectable four-star plus. Still, compared to other iOS apps that allow aural reading from a wide variety of books, this one shines. vBookz EPub and VBookz PDF, for example, as far as I can determine, will not let you take notes, and Blio won’t allow you to export your notes to email, your printer, or other destinations, as Voice Dream does.

Mind you, the other products are far from losers; Blio offers multimedia capabilities, for example. But if you especially value accessibility mixed with annotation- and sharing-related features—“musts” for truly superior software in such areas as the upper grades in K-12—then Voice Dream is the champ. vBookz and Blio can’t seamlessly pick up items for reading from Instapaper or the Web (the screenshot shows the Voice Dream library filtered to display only Instapaper items—double-click for a better view). What’s more, those rivals lack Voice Dream’s rich selection of dozens of optional voices, selling for just a few bucks a throw.

Furthermore, Voice Dream’s promo says it can read ePub, PDF (though some complain it isn’t true to the appearance of source PDF—which would be a nice option, if Chen could offer it, even if it meant that TTS wouldn’t work while you were in that mode), Word, RTF, Apple Page, PowerPoint, .txt, and HTML.

Given Voice Dream’s obvious merits for nonDRMed books such as public domain titles, librarians and educators should not just try the app (a mere $5 for institutions buying 20 copies or more, and no cost for a demo with very limited read-aloud capabilities) but also provide Chen with detailed  feedback. No, I haven’t any financial ties with the company, direct or indirect, and if I run across an alternative better than Chen’s, I’ll talk it up. I’m just eager to see a good and socially useful product succeed.

VoiceDreamFocused2[1]Chen estimates that 30 percent of the app’s users are blind, 50 percent suffer from dyslexia or attention deficit disorders and the like, and 20 percent lack any print-related disabilities. I myself suffer from a minor disability, my difficulty seeing light-weight fonts against a white background; and I resent the persistent indifference of Amazon and many other hardware and software vendors to needs of people with similar challenges. Voice Dream to the rescue, at least for nonDRMed texts read on iOS devices!

Selections within Voice Dream’s rich assortment of fonts should please not only the contrast-challenged but also a much larger group, the millions with dyslexia, in the United States and elsewhere. As for those with attention issues, a focused reading mode—shown here—displays just a small amount of text at a time for greater concentration.

Of more importance for me, Voice Dream provides excellent control over both the written and spoken versions of the text. Want to revisit a previous paragraph on your screen without interrupting the audio reading? Voice Dream makes this a snap in either the full page mode or the the focused reading one, and it moves quickly even within long books. In other words, this app excels for people with dyslexia and others whose enjoyment and comprehension of books could benefit from simultaneous visual and audio presentation of text. The yellow in the above screen shot jumps from spoken word to spoken word, so users can associate the actual texts with the spoken sounds. If you are not disabled in the least but want to read Henry James closely, Voice Dream could still be of interest.

An Email Q & A with Winston Chen (edited)

Q. Am I missing something, or is there no way to go into a paging rather than scrolling mode?

A. I’m almost finished with this new feature, but still working on perfecting it. It’ll work the same as scrolling, except it stops at page boundaries. I really want to avoid doing the left-right page flipping that most book readers want to emulate.

Q. What about the ability to pick up bookmarks and notes and highlights from machine to machine, even across platforms? Via Dropbox you could implement that capability if it isn’t there already. Perhaps if there are no legal issues, you could even make the syncing compatible with that of a great Android app, Moon Reader.

A. Synching across devices is easily the most requested feature. The problem is that Apple iCloud synching for the kind of database I used is currently unreliable for bi-directionary synchronization. Until Apple fixes it—which I’m hoping for [with] iOS 7—turning this feature on would be a bad idea.

Q. I truly truly loathe DRM but am wondering if you could arrange with Adobe and/or OverDrive and other library vendors for VoiceDream to be usable with library books. OverDrive, of course, is the main show.

A. I have not reached out to Adobe yet, but I plan to.

Q. How many people are now using VoiceDream?

A. Voice Dream now has 20,000 customers for the paid app and 110,000 customers for the free app.

Q. Will you be expanding to platforms beyond iOS? Which ones? When?

A. The next platform is probably Android. But I haven’t committed to it.

Q. What would you do if Amazon dangled a nice offer in front of you? I was among the first to discover Stanza, and I pounded the table for it when I owned TeleRead—only to see it vanish down Amazon’s maw. Can you assure us that you won’t sell your company, at least in the next five years? And not to Amazon? More recently I talked up Ivona on the LibraryCity site and elsewhere, and then sure enough

A. I’m aware of Stanza, which I still use despite all. I don’t have any wish to sell the company. This company gives me such fulfillment that a lump of cash cannot fill. My main market and future focus remains building tools for people with learning disabilities, primarily for education. I have no intention to be a general purpose eBook reader, even though some people use my app that way. [Oh, but Voice Dream is so close now to being an acceptable GP reader, especially with paging on the way! – D.R.]

Q. Are there any personal reasons for your interest in Voice Dream? Do you have any reading-related disabilities? Anyone in your family?

A. I knew nothing about reading disabilities until after the first release of the app was out. But I quickly moved the product in that direction when I realized that for these people TTS is not just a nice-to-have but a life-changing tool. Then, it was a matter of keeping close to my customers, listening to customers, and making my product better for my customers.

Q. Is it possible that angels should take more risks on one-person app shops like yours, given your success? Or could it be that the real reason for your success is that you were more interested in serving humanity than in making a buck?

A. Since I started working on this app, I couldn’t get away from it. I believe a good profession needs to (1) produce decent income, (2) have enjoyable day-to-day work, and (3) makes a positive impact on society. I’ve always believed that the best jobs in the world have all three and have them in balance. That pretty much sums up my vision for Voice Dream.

I’m working on some very exciting features for the next release which should be out in a few weeks:

-Personal Pronunciation Dictionary

-Adjust default speech rate, pitch and volume for each voice

-Speech rate in the voice settings now overrides the default speech rate for the voice used.

-More navigation options: rewind or fast forward by sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, highlights, bookmarks, 15, 30, and 60 seconds.

-Footer indicate page number, percentage, chapter name, and current navigation unit for rewind and fast forward.

-Additional voices: Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

-Sort by Add Date, Title, Author and Size for articles in the Home screen

-Option to scroll page by page in addition to free scrolling

-Two finger double-tap to play/pause

More on the future of Voice Dream

I asked Chen if he would also add the ability to adjust line-spacing, a more-than-just vexing omission from the current Kindle Fires. No luck. In fact, he says I’m the first to request it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised since so many users of text to speech programs have low expectations. Anyone else care to speak up, maybe in the comments area of this post? Fortunately Voice Dream’s present line-spacing is close to optimal for me. But I truly, truly believe that Voice Dream fans should have that choice.

Another possibility for Voice Dream, as I see it, might be additions within the existing “Advanced settings” menu leading to all kinds of customizations without confusing novices, who could simply ignore them. Chen says that might end up on his list.

Returning the topic to libraries, I asked Chen if he would sell Voice Dream to the DPLA, the innovative Douglas County library system in Colorado, or another noncommercial library organization to distribute to users, maybe even as FLOSS, short for free and open-source software. He is willing to strike library deals, but with a limitation—the product could only be used with content from the respective library collections involved. Same for deals involving publishers’ collections. Otherwise, he says, that would be the same as selling the company, which, in the interest of control over the app, he doesn’t want to do. Too bad. Whatever Chen has in mind, it is not genuine FLOSS. I myself could envision talented developers like Chen getting large up-front payments for their products, if they beta-tested well, and then additional money could come later on, with the understanding that the developers would hang around to develop new features and oversee user support. Fees might also reach the developers as the user base grew. The advantage of a pure FLOSS approach instead is the possibility of tapping a larger pool of talent, with the main developer still influencing the evolution of the product.

At least, thanks partly to the existence of the DPLA—extremely API-oriented—companies like Voice Dream will have a head start in the library world even if they market primarily to individuals rather than libraries directly, and I’d hope that Douglas County’s e-book-tech initiative and any others would take the same open approach. The proprietary DRM issue will remain for public libraries, so that’s still a complication. But as noted, Chen is trying to overcome it. In the end, perhaps one scenario would be for libraries to evaluate Voice Dream and other products and promote the acceptable ones on their sites and take small cuts. Maybe they’d be sold under different brand names from the usual offerings and include library-related optimizations. Just a few thoughts. Who knows how this will shake out.

Some good news is that a free “Lite” version of Voice Support is available from the Apple app store and includes everything in the paid version but the ability beyond more than a few hundred characters at a time. So you don’t even have to gamble $10 for at a meaningful look at Chen’s baby in action. If you value accessibility blended with powerful sharing and annotative capabilities, go for it and share your own reactions with us.

An update written around 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, May 11—mostly on Voice Dream’s potential for education

In the “first edition” of this post, I asked readers for any corrections. Winston Chen kindly pointed out two typos, and he also give me his own thoughts on the quality of the voices.

“Bridget is shockingly good and in my view just as good as Amy from Ivona. Paul is the best male American voice from any TTS company. They’re my best-selling voices. And, to my knowledge, no other mobile TTS reader offers NeoSpeech voices. They’re the same voices used in Kurzweil for $1,500 a seat.” I bought “Paul” and will still “voice” my preference for “Amy” over him and the already-purchased “Bridget,” but they’re both excellent by today’s standards of TTS for consumers, and this is strictly subjective anyway.

Hello, TeleRead and LibraryCity visitors—your own thoughts on the inflection, general pleasantness, and other traits of the various voices?

About the review in general, Chen said: “I really appreciate your deep insights, some of which other reviewers failed to pick up. For example, how I handled the interaction between the visual and the auditory. It took me a long time to work out the complex logic for a satisfactory solution. In other words, the feeling of fluidity was actually very hard to achieve. With the new release, it’ll get even better. For example, it’ll save visual and speech locations independently.”

My Sister The Retired Teacher, meanwhile, weighed in with her own take when I took my iPad with me to lunch at her house. Dorothy taught special-education kids among others during her many years in the classroom, and, in fact, she holds a Masters degree in this field. She liked Chen’s efforts. Read-aloud books are hardly new, but Dorothy appreciated Voice Dream’s ability to work with any title in the common formats it supports, not just with a particular book or collection.

Dorothy offered her own suggestions for Voice Dream. First, since the needs of children and other readers vary, users should be able to choose between (1) just words being identified in distinctive colors when spoken, (2) lines being marked instead, and (3) a mix of the two other modes, Voice Dream’s current approach. She felt that some readers with special needs might actually find the word-level identification to be too much of a distraction. Anyone else’s thoughts on this?.

Second, Dorothy wanted default colors used for identification of spoken words to be closer together and for the app to avoid the bright yellow, since stark color clashes might upset some children with attention challenges. While readers can adjust colors, she thinks that a quieter approach would be better to start out with. Here again, I’d welcome others’ reactions. Perhaps the solution would be a choice of themes—canned color combos for different kinds of readers—even if I myself very much like Voice Dream’s current default mix.

Third, after trying out Voice Dream’s dictionary, Dorothy also called for the ability to increase the size of the font with young children’s needs in mind. No problem as a future change, I’d hope.

Fourth, Dorothy called for continuous scrolling rather than Voice Dream’s jumping ahead by the page. She felt that would be less jarring to young reader-listeners.

And fifth, she was concerned that even with different voices used, Voice Dream sometimes pronounced two words as one.

Inaccurate aural spacing does not bother me too much as a reader-listener if it isn’t too common and too serious; but people learn to read in part by listening and processing the information not just word by word but also syllable by syllable. So if Voice Dream and its voices and other TTS products can improve in that respect, it’ll increase their value to young children. Yes, even Ivona’s Amy has her own pause-related quirks. At the same time, parents should remember that the most accurate TTS voices in standard U.S. or U.K. English or other varieties still can’t replace the warmth and interaction of old-fashioned reading to a daughter or son. Parents, not just teachers, ideally will discuss stories with young children and ask questions on such matters as the motives and actions of characters within the material. I’m confident Chen would agree with this standard tenet of early-childhood education.

Despite the concerns above, I see Voice Dream as an incredibly useful way to impart information—on a variety of subjects—to older children who need it or who, like me, simply enjoy a book while exercising.

Encourage text reading constantly? Help students overcome text-related learning disabilities? Yes! But should all other learning cease until students are perfect readers? Some may never be and could more or less live as if in the Jules Verne novel where the telephone-delivered news replaced printed newspapers. I hate the possibilities of In the Year 2889, one reason I’m grumpy when librarians are agnostic about the value of text vs. other media, given the efficiencies of words on paper or on the screen. Not always, but so often, they’re the best conveyors of facts and emotions. But I’m also a realist about individuals and see Voice Dream-style programs as an essential way for e-libraries to better serve millions of the print-impaired and help keep books alive, however people enjoy them. The current DPLA has given some attention to presentation issues, but not nearly enough, considering all the complexities here, one reason why I favor intertwined but separate public and academic systems online. The former would care more about presentation issues for the masses, including K-12 students and people in the lower socio-economic groups, two frequently overlapping categories, alas. Besides, the separate organizations could still share a common technical services organization in close touch with leading researchers on and off the campus.

Stay tuned. I’ll give Winston Chen a chance to reply to Dorothy and me. Meanwhile a big thanks to both of them, especially since the education-related issues raised here about text to speech are generic, not just limited to Voice Dream.

Close to 9 p.m.: A quick response from Chen to Dorothy’s reactions

“I just read through your update. Your sister’s suggestions are spot-on. I already added the ability to disable word highlighting and line highlighting, so there’ll be four modes: no highlighting, word highlighting only, line highlighting only, and both word and line highlighting. While she has a point about the word highlight color being too strong, I’m not going to tamper with those defaults. That has a way of infuriating customers like nothing else.”

This Creative Commons licensed post originally appeared on LibraryCity.org.

Saving Barnes & Noble from itself: The DRM angle

BNHere’s a heartfelt suggestion for the besieged people at Barnes & Noble, in the spirit of the recommendations that Joanna Cabot and my other friends at TeleRead have offered:

Rid your operation of DRM to the maximum extent your publishers will let you, and if they resist, at least make a case for social DRM, so technical incompatibilities aren’t a factor. By itself, that won’t save your company. But at least I’ll have a reason to buy from you despite prices so often higher than Amazon’s.

I’m plugged into the Amazon ecosystem, as well as a cloud with nonDRMed ePubs for my Android machine. And while I could run your reader on my Nexus 10 or iPad, it ain’t so hot compared, say, to the amazing Moon+ Pro Reader that I use with ePubs, while at times enjoying the Amy voice from Ivona. But suppose I could read B&N books with Moon and not have to worry about losing already-purchased titles. “Lose” is exactly what happened to the some of the few DRMed books I warily bought from Fictionwise, the independent bookstore you’ve shut down. The more familiar readers grow with e-books, the more they’ll hate DRM. It’s a great way to keep losing market share.

Please, B&N. While I can’t recall the last time I bought an e-book from you—thanks to mix of higher prices and DRM—I’d love an excuse to take up the B&N habit. And maybe you’d pick up a second customer as well. My wife owns a Nook HD+, but for now she is using it almost entirely to read OverDrive library books.

Nate Responds:

I like DRM-free ebooks as much as the next guy but this strikes me as a pipe dream. This isn’t going to happen absent publishers signing on, and I just don’t see that happening. Sure, several independents have gone DRM-free, Wiley has started selling DRM-free ebooks via O’Reilly, and even Macmillan is dabbling in DRM-free ebooks with SF publisher Tor-Forge.

But a large concerted action to get rid of DRM just to save B&N? I don’t see that happening. Sure, they all fear Amazon, but even though it is easy to tell people the sky is falling it’s hard to get them to act before it completely falls.

reposted under a CC license from Library City

Amazon’s zapping of customer’s Kindle library shows why we need library-provided ‘content lockers’ for e-books and perhaps other media

1984What if Amazon wiped out all your Kindle books and refused to let you open another account? I don’t know what if any sins a customer committed, but such an Orwellian scenario is said to have actually happened. No, I’m not just talking about the remote deletion of 1984, but rather the mysterious zapping of the customer’s entire Kindle library.

The most likely scenario here, as guessed at by BoingBoing, is that the Norwegian customer simply lived outside of the territories for authorized purchases.

While I love content providers—I’m one myself—Amazon’s latest action shows why the Digital Public Library of America or another nonprofit needs to get into the business of offering digital lockers to safe-keep books and other content downloaded from retail outlets and elsewhere. Let the laws be changed if need be to require publishers and retailers to cooperate with library-controlled digital lockers.

If publishers insist on DRM, which I would much rather they not, this is all the more reason why library patrons need digital lockers. I’ve lost a few books myself because of changing DRM standards. Microsoft’s phasing out of Microsoft Reader is yet another indication of the need for protection against the impermanence of DRM and proprietary formats, even if for now customers can still access previous purchases. Better that typical books be in ePub anyhow. If nothing else, libraries should have the express legal right to convert books to ePub for digital lockers and other uses, both in terms of accessibility and consumer rights.

Along the way, such lockers would be one way for DPLA-powered libraries to engage even the taxpayers who normally didn’t rely on libraries for books and other content. Links in the locker could direct them to library offerings and ideally make regular patrons of them.

Yes, if need be customers could pay storage charges, but in many cases, there would be no storage in the customers’ lockers but rather links to master files elsewhere. Consisting mostly of text, not images, most books don’t take up that much space anyway.

Ironically, despite the howls that might come from retailers and some publishers, the locker arrangement would actually help sales of the best stores and houses since readers could more confidently buy E. Stores, as has been noted, could add value through social media. I’d like to see libraries able to sell and rent books, but I believe they should also provide store-related links—we need a variety of business models.

Over the centuries, a major attraction of books has been their permanence; DRM and the zapping of personal libraries can only detract from the glory of the medium, and the time has come for corrective actions such as the proposed lockers. Besides, hasn’t Random House said that libraries themselves should be able to own books for real and lend them within the bounds of fair use? The locker proposal would certainly be in the same spirit, and I’d hope that Random House would see virtues here.

As I see it, the content lockers could preserve not just commercially originated media, but also items originated by library patrons, including family photos and other content that patrons are now entrusting to Facebook.

In fact, I continue to see libraries as potential Facebook alternatives, with help from possible partners such as local newspapers.

Detail: Patrons’ digital lockers could actually carry the brands of local libraries even though the content resided on DPLA servers and backups elsewhere.

(Original item from Martin Bekkelund.)

reposted with permission from Library City

All-text bold, multiple columns, other capabilities enhance OverDrive’s upgraded library app for iPads, iPhones and Touches

OverDrive iOS boldFor years I’d hoped that OverDrive’s e-book-and-multimedia app for libraries would do all-text bolding.

So many library fans have their own wish lists of accessibility features, and full bolding led mine since I cherish an extra-high-contrast view for reading e-books, even on LCD displays.

Earlier in 2012 OverDrive obliged with optional bold fonts for the Android version, and now it is out with similar goodies for iPads, iPhones and Touches—in fact, not just all-text bold but also multi-column capability. Among the other upgrades in the new iOS version is an “in-app browser for OverDrive-powered sites, which, although not quite Kindle-seamless, means you can go from a Web view back to your bookshelf with one effortless tap.

Unfortunately, the new iOS version does not let me vary the line spacing as much as I’d like, and it would be wonderful if OverDrive and other library app providers, including the ever-innovative Douglas County Libraries, offered text to speech capabilities for books allowing this. In all library apps, I’d also welcome the ability to close gaps between paragraphs in books, using indentation to show the starts of new ones.

Still, OverDrive’s new wrinkles are definite progress. Click on the screenshot for a more detailed view of the all-text bolding and multiple column capabilities in action.

reposted with permission from Library City

Good news for Stanza fans: It apparently works under Apple’s new iOS6

Stanza, one of the best e-reading apps around, was brokenwhen Apple upgraded to iOS 5.

Amid the uproar from the app’s users, Stanza’s overlords at Amazon tweaked the ePub-capable app but did not promise future upgrades.

Update: User reports are coming in that Stanza is no longer usable. Caveat Emptor.

But Stanza runs fine under iOS 6, the new operating system for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, at least as best I can determine. I did suffer a lockup when I tried to change fonts, but my hunch is that this is probably an iOS 6 issue rather than a Stanza-specific one. A reboot of my iPad did the trick. Let me know if you yourself experience glitches. I’ve installed a zillion apps on my iPad, more than a few running simultaneously, and perhaps that can make things weird at times. I can hardly wait to test Stanza on the iPad Mini, assuming I buy one.

Just remember to store dupes of your books with Dropbox or another cloud-based system or the equivalent in case Stanza ends up broken in the future without a fix. Also, Stanza won’t work with “protected” books, not even Amazon-DRMed titles. Jeff Bezos and friends apparently ditched Stanza to stay focused on the standard Kindle apps, which, by comparison, come across as hobbled.

Why Stanza’s cool: It includes the highly readable Arial Rounded MT Bold font among others. Stanza is endlessly customizable, and on the whole I like the interface, which lets you use Apple’s pinch feature to expand or shrink the size of the font (after which you do a quick “save”). For tech-smart library patrons who want to read nonDRMed e-books, Stanza could be an excellent recommendation as long as they understand its limits. There are somewhat similar substitutes such as Megareader, but Stanza’s still a contender, even a few years after Amazon froze its development.

reposted from Library City under a CC license

No text to speech in Amazon’s new Paperwhite Kindles: Why? To push us toward Fire tablets and boost Amazon-owned Audible?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ballyhooed text to speech in the Kindle 2 in 2009.

But guess what’s now missing from the new Paperwhite Kindles even though it’s still present in the Kindle Keyboard 3G and Kindle DX models? TTS, aka “Read to Me.”

Tipped off by a Gizmodo review noting the absence of an audio jack, I called the Kindle support people Thursday and learned that the Paperwhite models would be mute. Bummer. For years, I’ve complained of E Ink’s contrast problems, and the new models are said to offer 25 percent more contrast, not just glow with less eyestrain than LCDs.

The news from Support jibes with a table comparing various models on the Amazon site (scroll down toward the bottom of this Amazon page). Notice? The table lists the Paperwhite models as lacking the speakers that high-end models offer.

amazonPaperWhiteSo, Jeff, what’s the strategy here, given the diminishment of the usefulness of the Paperwhite models for the people with dyslexia or other learning or vision challenges? Especially, how about students? Don’t you hope to crack the education market? Dumb move, this muting. Speech chips cost a pittance, so that excuse just will not fly. If you don’t want a speaker or there isn’t room for one, at least include a headphone jack. Just how could you be so out of touch with customers in this instance? I actually was hoping Amazon would go in the other direction and do TTS right with “Amy” and other refined voices from the whizzes at Ivona (or would pick up the equivalents from a similar company).

In silencing the Paperwhites, was Amazon trying to extend the market life of the TTS-enabled Kindle Keyboard 3G and the DX? And nudge consumers toward the Fire models that can play digital audio books from Audible, part of the Bezos empire? Or cozy up to publishers or literary agents? A smarter move would be for Amazon to take a strong stand in favor of TTS while at the same time encouraging Audible to offer extras, such as author interviews, so that audiobooks still paid off. Anti-TTS strategies will actually reduce opportunities for writers. I want the print-impaired and joggers to be able to enjoy my books, and TTS make this more likely to happen.

No matter what the explanation for The Great Muting, Jeff, I’d be grateful for your personal pledge that text to speech will be a feature of all future Kindles, including the basic models (apparently audio of any kind was also missing from the the bottom-of-the-line Kindle introduce last year, and is still AWOL from the $69 successor).

At the very least, TTS needs to be in mainstream E Ink machines like the Paperwhite models.

I hope that librarians and advocates for people with disabilities will besiege Amazon with demands for TTS for all models. Same for joggers and walkers and others who would rather listen to their books when they need to pay special attention to their surroundings. (Yes, I do plead guilty to e-reading at times while walking—when conditions are safe enough.)

Of course, this is one more reason for librarians and others to support the Digital Public LIbrary of America, the ePub format, the battle against DRM and other efforts that would reduce our reliance on the proprietary technology.

Look, Jeff, it isn’t as if I’m anti-Amazon—I applaud your people’s innovative ways and stellar customer service, and I’ve sent thousands of dollars in Seattle’s direction over the years despite my less than full satisfaction with Amazon’s labor practices. I am not calling for a boycott and, in fact, have ordered a Paperwhite 3G. But I do believe that librarians and others should use whatever clout they can summon up to remind you of your social obligations, especially when Amazon may earn millions in tax money from some major Kindle-related federal contracts. Even if the Kindles in those cases have TTS, it would be extremely bad karma to reduce options in that area for ordinary users.

In so proudly demonstrating the Kindle 2?s TTS back in 2009, Jeff Bezos said: "Any book, blog, magazine, or personal document can be read aloud to you. If you’re in the kitchen cooking and want to be read to for a little while, or you’re on your commute to work and you want to be read to for a little while, Kindle can do that for you. Let’s listen…"

Yes, let’s listen. And, Jeff, you do the same. Unmute the Paperwhites! Ideally you could even give people with existing orders the choice of either accepting the silent Paperwhites or getting a slight discount on future models with the speech chips.

And speaking of good ergonomics—for everyone, not just people with print impairments: I notice that Kobo’s Glo model lets people vary the boldness of the characters. When will Amazon finally heed me and build this feature in? When I owned TeleRead, I begged vendors to oblige. Nice to see Kobo acting, whether or not I was the inspiration.

reposted from Library City under a CC license

The Risks of Cloud-Based eBooks—and the Related Need for a Robust, Secure Infrastructure

As keen as I am on library e-books, I’m as much a booster of the buyable variety. I want people to be able to own e-books for real, ideally without DRM.

More and more of our books, music, and even personal files, however, are in The Cloud beyond our direct control. Not on our desktops, smartphones or tablets, but on remote severs, maybe thousands of miles from us, perhaps even continents and oceans away. What’s more, this issue has library angles as well.

Steve Wozniak, Apple cofounder, shown here, has warned about the pitfalls of cloud computing in general, and a security breach of Apple’s iCloud only reinforced his point.

All kinds of pesky worries arise, ranging from privacy to the safety of the data. Here are my thoughts in both retail and library contexts—which will increasingly converge, as more library sites come with “buy” buttons:

1. I myself love the idea of cloud computing despite its downsides, but readers should retain the right to buy books they can store on their own computers, even if, alas, this means the use of DRM. Mind you, traditional DRM comes with its own risks if future access to the books or at least downloading is reliant on remote servers. What if the vendors fail? But the good news is that in such cases, traditional DRM can be generally be cracked. This might not be so true of future cloud-based systems. If nothing else, what if a cloud-based vendor goes out of business and the merchandise vanishes?

2. In a library context, people should be able to read books with third-party dedicated software—everything from Mantano to Bluefire Reader—so they aren’t limited to user options in browser-based systems or those offered by library vendors like OverDrive or 3M. I’m talking about specific font choices and other typographical options, for example. Ideally the cloud systems will work not just with vendor-provided software and standard browsers, but also third-party applications that the usual Chrome, Internet Explore or Firefox might not offer.

Meanwhile people who would go for a cloud-only approach might pay attention to some caveats that experts in this area are aware of:

–Without open APIs, cloud-related vendor lock-ins might be worse than with interoperable DRM. Third-party reading systems might not be as easy to develop.

–Internet Service Providers and others might be able to more easily snoop on your reading activity than with traditional DRM-based reading systems. Yes, the latter can allow Amazon and the like to spy on you. But potentially the cloud-based approach could expand the number of eyes.

–There are potential privacy issues from hackers’ “social engineering” of cloud systems, and in other respects—as the Apple iCloud embarrassment makes clear in a different context. Cyberwar threats only add to the potential ugliness. What if the idea is not just to inconvenience, injure or kill Americans (or others) but wipe out their culture(s)?

–Another danger is that with a cloud-only approach the feds could not only spy on your reading habits but also—mind you this is still sci-fi, thankfully—revoke access to your books because your politics were too bothersome. Amazon itself, as I recall, at least temporarily banned at least one customer from continued access to its Kindle books because of alleged violations of its terms of service.

Mind you, I’m all for cloud computing, as noted, and, in fact, I favor a robust cloud infrastracture for the Digital Public Library of America or an equivalent. It should allow for reliably networked books that could access text, images and other goodies stored in countless locations on DPLA-controlled servers. But cloud computing mustn’t be the only show for either the retail or the library world (just as the DPLA-controlled infrastructure should be bypassable through the Internet or otherwise, so no one, especially Washington, can dictate to the entire country)!

What’s more, given all the risks, expenses and complexities of the cloud-based approach—and to think we now have the growing cyberwar threat, too!—I believe that interested publishers and others should be able to piggyback on a national digital library infrastructure. This should be a no-brainer even if some powerful library, publishing, and retail interests are slow to catch on. The safety and stability of a well-secured library infrastructure, without the risk of material vanishing just because a vendor goes out of business, could help endlessly in the age of networked books drawing on components from many sources by way of The Cloud.

reposted with permission form LibraryCity

Apple e-textbook tools to jack up education and hardware costs ultimately?

While the Digital Public Library of America has been fixated on arcane library-and-museum concerns, Apple is unveiling an e-book creation tool that might lock in some teachers and students.

Very possibly the new multimedia tool may ultimately jack up costs somewhat in K-12 and elsewhere. This could happen via more expensive books and perhaps more justification for premiums on Apple hardware. Textbooks created with the new tool, called iBooks Author, will let students rotate and explore 3D objects, among other features. That’s good. But iBooks Author comes with gotchas.

–Charge for a book created with iBooks? You may legally distribute it only through iTunes or Apple’s bookstore. That could affect some textbook prices.

–And the creation tool will run only on Macs. No luck if you use a PC or linux.

The creation tool’s output is standard ePub or close to it, but Apple is hoping that its ease of use will still encourage people to switch to it. Some would write this off as a minor consideration, simple to get around. I’m not so sure: not all e-book creators are sophisticated technically. Why can’t unencumbered creation tools also be easy to use?

Granted, the DPLA already has a lot on its plate. Still, the Apple approach is the opposite of the library ecosystem approach I’ve advocated here and here. I wish the DPLA would pay more attention to basics and work with others to offer free creation tools without gotchas.

Reporting on the new Apple initiative, Wired says: "Meanwhile, iBooks Author is the trojan horse. There really aren’t many easy-to-use e-book authoring apps, even for plain-text books for Kindle or Nook. And none of the easy-to-use applications have been free.

"Now both individual authors and trade and textbook presses can be drawn into a development and publishing ecosystem that begins and ends with Apple. Amazon may offer more eyeballs, but Apple offers an easier workflow. And the multimedia enhancements baked into the new iBooks will tempt everyone creating an e-book to add bits that will be specific to Apple’s platform—creating accidental exclusives.

Sure enough, about the iBooks 2 reading app, Wired says: “Disappointingly there’s no move to offer a desktop client for Mac or Windows.”

Please, DPLA, can’t you pay more attention to mundane things like creation tools and e-reading software and coordinate your act better with the IDPF, the e-book standards group? Let’s turn the nation’s computer science departments into—in part—R&D labs for nonproprietary standards and authoring and reading apps. Significantly, the DPLA for now is mostly a creature of academia. Here’s a chance to use that fact for the good.

Related: Just spotted, via Peter Brantley’s e-publishing list: Joe Esposito’s essay, reaching some of the conclusions I do. This is a platform war. And consumers will pay—in inconvenience if nothing else—the accompanying costs. Also see views of Vook, an Apple software competitor.

reposted under  CC license from Library City