Does Your Library Need the New Wii U?

Nope. Too easy?

The “Wii U” is Nintendo’s next-generation console, with high definition graphics and a slate of new games. Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 have new versions coming out in the not-quite-foreseeable future, though they’re on the way. Nintendo is the first to get a new console onto the shelves.

I have no complaints with what I’ve seen of the Wii U, even including the name (an exclamation made after coming across a piggy smell?). It’s the controller that will probably keep this out of libraries.

That’s a picture of the Wii U GamePad on the box. Nintendo is using the screen on the controller to enhance gameplay on the TV. So while you’re wandering through a videogame on the TV, the GamePad’s screen might show a map of the level. From the game previews I’ve seen, it looks like the GamePad is necessary for playing the games, not just a fun add-on.

The GamePad is $150. That’s the estimate based on the price in Japan, and it’s the real kicker. The Wii controllers aren’t indestructible, but they can definitely stand up to some abuse. I doubt that’s true of the GamePad. Broken or stolen, it looks like it will take the whole system offline.

This isn’t a dealbreaker for the Wii U as a whole. If you trust your kids (or yourself) with a handheld game system like Nintendo’s 3DS or Sony’s PSP or and iPod Touch, you can handle the GamePad. Its second screen looks like it will add a lot of fun to games, and although the system’s $300 starting price is high, it’s not much higher than the Wii’s original price when adjusted for inflation. Its new TVii system also streams TV shows from Netflix, Hulu, and other sources and can take the place of other set-top boxes. You may well want one for your home. But for your library? Probably not.

 


Photograph Archiving

Are your digital pictures important to you? “Yes,” you say while you roll your eyes. Of course they are. Have you planned for the day that your hard drive dies? “No,” you say while looking slightly guilty. Well it’s not like this is easy unless you’re willing to put some money down. If your pictures are important, though, it’s probably time to put some money down.

Here’s a post by someone who’s saving all their pictures to Dropbox. Dropbox uploads everything in the “Dropbox” folder to your private Dropbox account. So the pictures are on your computer, but they’re also secure in the cloud. And Dropbox now recognizes when you’ve plugged a camera (including a smartphone) into your computer and can be set to copy those images to your Dropbox folder automatically.

$99 a year for 100GB of space sounds pretty good for something this important.


Music, Ebooks, & The Long Tail

Cory Doctorow wrote a piece yesterday named, “Music: The Internet’s Original Sin.” In it, he explains why he thinks music will remain at the center of the file-sharing debate, even though most digital music sold is DRM-free and music labels have stopped suing downloaders (for the most part). He explains the early rush to illegal downloads this way:

Back at the beginning of the file-sharing wars, during the delirious 18 months during which Napster went from zero to 52 million users, much of the focus was on the novelty of getting music for free – but there was also a lot of buzz about getting some of that music at all. Prior to Napster, more than 80 percent of recorded music wasn’t for sale (except as uncatalogued, obscure used LPs).

Music that hadn’t been available was suddenly right in front of you. That music probably wasn’t in high demand at all, but the amount of low-demand music that people want ends up representing a huge catalog. This phenomenon is called the long tail, and you can read more about it in the Wired article that coined the term, named aptly, “The Long Tail.”

Music labels have moved to capitalize on this demand by selling digital downloads of low-demand music. Once they’ve (re)secured the rights to sell the music online (which can be no small task with obscure artists, let alone the Beatles), it’s easy to make those albums available through iTunes, Amazon’s MP3 store, and other online shops. These albums are also available through music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio. If you suddenly remember a song that you haven’t heard in a decade, listening to that track is probably a couple clicks away.

Ebooks: Need I Say More

Compare the digital music scenario with the current state of ebooks. They are, in two words, not similar. There isn’t a vast long tail of ebooks available for sale or rent. Securing rights to create ebooks versions is a challenge, just like with music. But unlike music, books are much more difficult to digitize. (Compare the time it takes to rip a CD to the time it takes to just scan 10 pages of a book.) Since most book publishers rely heavily on DRM, distributing ebooks is more difficult. Buying ebooks is more difficult for consumers, too.

As Cory points out, our relationship with books is fundamentally different from our relationship with music. (Seriously, read his piece. It’s smart stuff.) We use books and music very differently, but that isn’t likely to make people more accepting of the current state of ebooks. Ebooks lag far behind music in going digital, and it doesn’t feel like ebooks are catching up.

When we tell library members about ebooks (which most people still don’t know we have), this needs toe part of the narrative. As all of Twitter pointed out yesterday, J.K. Rowling’s next book now has a cover. The book will be published by Hachette, which currently doesn’t sell ebooks to libraries. When should we explain that we won’t have this title as an ebook? Now? Or when a patron’s calling the front desk because he can’t find it on Overdrive?

Now, now, tell people about it now! If you tell patrons that we have ebooks they can read for free, that’s good news, right? If they find out about library ebooks when the one ebook they want isn’t available, the good news will get bulldozed by the bad. Tell people the good news while it’s still good. Besides, the more patrons check out ebooks from libraries, the more they’re likely to call for publishers to sell ebooks to libraries. That would be very good news indeed.


Expectations, Overdrive & Customer Service

When your expectations aren’t met, funny things happen.

Another example? Sure thing.

These are setups, right? The basketball players see this old dude who plays terribly for a while. He’s embarrassing himself. The lamp is carried on the owner’s shoulder like a baby. It looks up through the window to its old home. The viewer is drawn into one understanding, one perspective. The videos play these missed expectations as funny, but it isn’t always that way.

Library members have a perspective on libraries that libraries cultivate: we have books. We have a lot of books. If the book you want isn’t in the building, we’ll ship it in from another branch, maybe from another system. Maybe we’ll even just go buy it. Because you asked. We’ve worked really hard to establish this reputation. Supplying books certainly isn’t the only thing libraries do, but it’s one of those core services that we have to do well, because it’s an important part of who we are.

Ebooks don’t work like print books. Lots of titles we have in print aren’t available in ebook formats at all, let alone being available through Overdrive. Even when titles are available, our money doesn’t go as far with ebooks, so we can’t buy as many titles or as many copies as we can with print. The public doesn’t understand this. They barely know we have ebooks at all

When people complain about ebooks, which they can reasonably see as indistinguishable from print books as a library’s core service, the first thing we should do is apologize. Don’t explain. Certainly don’t chastise them for not submitting their response through proper channels. We’ve worked to set their expectations, and then we didn’t meet them. Your patron–your customer–needs empathy before any of the “Yeah, but” explanations you have ready.

Try this on: Imagine you’ve spent a lot of money getting a fancy new 4G phone that’s supposed to download files at super-fast speeds. Two weeks later, you’re on vacation and you can’t access the data network at the beach house your family rents every year. Your old phone worked there, but your new expensive phone doesn’t. You call the store where you bought the phone, and instead of apologizing, the salesman says “Oh yeah, well this is a different network so coverage isn’t the same. You should have checked the coverage map that’s online. Besides, this is a carrier issue, so you should have called them and not me.”

At this point, you’re probably trying to light the salesman on fire with the power of your mind. The poor cell phone reception at your beach house isn’t this individual salesman’s fault. He can’t fix it. But everyone who represents that network system owns it. You bought that new phone expecting it would work better, and sometimes it does, but in this case it was a big fat FAIL. You hope for a fix, but you need an apology if they want to keep you as a customer.

We need to do more than apologize. We need to explain this whole ebook situation before the system fails people’s expectations. And I’m very confident that we aren’t doing this enough because people barely know we have ebooks at all. What are libraries already doing to explain the deal with ebooks? Let’s do it more, and better. This is a burning issue for libraries. In fact, I think my hair is starting to smoke.


Get Uncomfortable: A 48-Hour Film Project Report

I got an email from my friend, Mike Fleisch, a couple weeks ago inviting a group of friends to do a 48-hour film. Or something like that. Between work and a baby at home, I don’t have a lot of attention span left. It sounded cool, but I wasn’t sure I could square much time for it.

But it turns out that the 48-Hour Film Project is a real thing. Last weekend, 28 teams in Cincinnati made a film in 48 hours. That is, they got assignments on Friday evening (genre, a character, a prop, and a line of dialogue you must use). They had until Sunday evening to write, shoot, edit, and output everything related to their 4-7 minute film. Want some music in your film? You’ll have to record that sometime over the weekend.

It’s a crazy project. I’ll try to show up for crazy. I got over to the meet-up around 8 p.m. and spent the next 7 hours spinning story ideas that met the requirements (drama, a magician named Tom Rococo, a fan, and “What have you done for me lately?”). We also talked about what we’d been up to. One of our crew gave a poetry reading the week before, and we’ve done a Poem Depot type thing at Northside’s Second Saturdays a couple times (watch the video). Mike knew a magician. That was our start.

“The magician and the poet” suddenly became completely understandable as our main characters. We talked about who they were, pitched backstories, looked for conflict and decision points, what happens. Then we split off for 15 minutes and individually wrote up a story outline with these two characters. They had things in common and divergences. It got late, and several people had to head home. The three of us still there at 2 a.m. quartered some sheets from a legal pad and described the main scenes. Our story had a plan.

Seven hours later we were filming the first scene. As we shot, and crew members came and went, the story changed. We’d forget to shoot a connecting scene before an actor left, or we’d realize while filming that we wouldn’t have time to use much-if-any of that scene. When one plot point changed, it changed others too. As the story developed, we could see the story’s climax better and steer toward the strongest version of it we could find.

The critical final scenes were shot Saturday night, but I wasn’t there. I was home with the dude while my dear wife went out with some friends. I’d volunteered to try to create some music and planned to do that while the dude was sleeping. I’d heard Eliza Rickman at Chase Public (the crew’s space) recently. She played solo but accompanied herself with a loop pedal. I thought I’d try to do something similar in Garageband.

It turns out I only had an hour to work. Dude’s been teething, so he woke up upset and couldn’t get settled enough again to be put down. I was able to record one repeated bass-like vocal line, doubled (two recordings of the same notes). For percussion I tapped on a glass jar with a wooden spoon and added a shush from rubbing two of the dude’s wooden puzzle pieces together. It was about 40 seconds long.

In the morning I edited down the takes, picking parts that kept the beat the best. I looped them out so that the total “song” was about 1:30. I also saved versions with just the glass jar, and just the glass jar and puzzle pieces. Between all the parts, hopefully there were usable bits. Here’s the “music” I made:

I send the files to Mike, and my work on the project was done. Other stuff happened, Mike did an enormous amount of editing, and the film got turned in under the deadline. (Cue exhausted sigh.) I’m not a “film guy,” and I’m not close to turning to a life of film. That’s why it was a great project to join. On the next blog post, thoughts on short-order creative projects.


The 1940 Census & the Name Index

Last Monday, the National Archives opened the doors to the 1940 Census. For the first time, instead of being available on microfilm, the archive includes digital images of the 2.8 million census pages. With a few clicks, you can find a snapshot of your family’s life in April, 1940.

It’s an easy task if you know where your family members lived then. That’s because census data is collected by geographic area, divided into enumeration districts. At the archive, you can search by state, county, city and street name. But even if a general area is all you know, you can view a county map that shows the enumeration district numbers.

In Huron County, Michigan, the Winsor district’s enumeration district is 32-45. Open that set of images in the archive and you can browse the 36 pages of hand-written census records. Here are my great-grandparents, Dan and Mary Swartzendruber, and their 20-year old son Lloyd, my grandpa:

It’s pretty amazing to see their names there and imagine Daniel coming to the door to answer a few questions on a day in April.

This page was pretty easy to find, but it’s a whole different thing if your family lived in a city. You could end up looking through dozens of enumeration districts and hundreds of pages. That’s because there’s no index that lets you search by name as well as location. To build the index will take a lot of volunteers a lot of hours, to put it mildly.

The work is already underway at the1940census.com. Three large genealogical companies are hosting a mirror of the archive and providing indexing software to help volunteers type up information from every page. When this work is complete, “[t]he free index of the census records and corresponding images will be available to the public for perpetuity.”

The reason this isn’t a great deal, and the real reason I think we need a national digital public library, is that these genealogical companies will own this name index. Or rather, FamilySearch.org owns the license to the index. This is made plain enough in the indexing software’s license agreement:

Ownership of Your Work: Although you are working as a volunteer, without monetary compensation, you acknowledge and agree that your work in creating indexes of Images or otherwise performing related tasks using the Client or the FamilySearch Indexing Web site (such indexes and related work together called your “Work Product”) shall be deemed a work made for hire under U.S. copyright law, and that your Work Product will therefore be entirely owned by FamilySearch.

I contacted The 1940 Census project, asking if this license covered the name index and if so, would it really be free “for perpetuity.”

FamilySearch.org has advised that the license to the 1940 index being created by volunteers belongs to FamilySearch as the license owner. The index is sublicensed to other 1940 community project sponsoring parties. Those we have sublicensed the index to can provide it for free or may charge for the access at some future point.

So, yes, it is licensed, and yes they intend it to be free. But they could charge for it in the future or restrict the ways in which people can use the index, if they choose to. Without placing the index under a license like Creative Commons, there’s no guarantee that the index will remain free. And although “free” may mean you won’t have to pay to run a search, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be free to use the index in any way you like: copying part of the index to share information about your family, for example.

We need a name index that’s free for the public to use, remix, and share as they choose. Am I crazy, or does this sound like a job for libraries?


Project Proofreader

There’s a nice, short post up at Villanova’s Library blog about the proofreading work that goes into Project Gutenberg’s free ebooks. Digitizing books isn’t just a matter of snapping pictures of pages and gluing it into a PDF.

I mean, it can be. At the Internet Archive you can see pictures of the pages of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” as it was published in 1877. That’s pretty cool. And a 2.1 megabyte download isn’t huge, although the book is only 64 pages long. But this text isn’t searchable, adaptable to different screens, or especially light-weight like an EPUB file is.

To get an image to become searchable text, you need to use some kind of optical character recognition (OCR) software. The software does its best to guess which marks are letters and which are noise or old age, but it’s not perfect by a long shot. 

People are much better than this than software. The Distributed Proofreaders project does just that, letting participants compare the OCR text to the photo of the page. By going one page at a time, and reviewing the corrections others have made, you get reliable editions online, for free.

I helped out with the Distributed Proofreaders project several years ago. At the time, at least, you could choose which text(s) you wanted to work on and how much you wanted to do at once. Even nudging the ball forward makes progress when lots of people contribute. You’ve heard of crowdsourcing? This is it. And Villanova is working with this project to improve the digitized books in their collection.


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