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Brave New World!

November 29, 2004

As a faithful reader of this column, you know that you will soon be able to borrow “books on tape” from the library … but from your home, and over the Internet.

“O brave new world!” you cried.

“‘Tis new to thee,” I must reply.

This digital, Internet-ed world is woven into the fabric of many people’s lives. If, like me, you long for pen and paper, and still marvel at the technology of video and audio tape, you may take some righteous solace in the fact that paper and tape are darn good media for libraries — we own something quite durable that we can lend to you.

DVDs and CDs are delicate formats I’d rather avoid, but oh well. The next step in the delivery of digital stuff — books, movies, music, anything — is the Internet.

Digital stuff has been available for sale or for free (legally or not) on the Internet for years, but what’s new for libraries is reliable Digital Rights Management, an evolving thing itself. This lets us legally lend you digital stuff.

Here’s how the “Downloadable Audiobook” works and what you will need to use it:

Recorded Books along with Netlibrary will host a website containing a catalog of unabridged audiobooks. The catalog can be searched (bestsellers, author, title, etc.), and will contain such information as book graphics, descriptions, reviews, plot summaries.

There will be 500 titles to start, and 30 titles will be added each month — half popular backlist titles and half new releases.

Our library card holders may download audiobooks onto their own players either in the library or at home.

The “book” has a check-out period of three weeks, after which it disappears from the player. You may renew it once without having to download the book again. The limit is 6 books at a time.

There are many digital audio players on the market and most will handle the Windows Media Player .wma format used for these audio books. The popular iPod player from Apple can not read the .wma file format. Too bad.

The players come in many shapes and sizes. One company sells a model in Europe in the form of a necklace. There are two basic storage options: flash memory (currently up to 1 gigabyte) and tiny hard drives (tens of gigabytes).

The flash memory models have no moving parts; the models with hard drives have moving parts but hold much more. One gigabyte of flash memory will probably hold your 6-book limit. But you might want to store music, too. Oh, freedom of choice is wonderful.

Another technical note: USB 2.0 will make for faster file transfers. Most new players have this.

You’ll have a choice of quality for each book: radio-quality sound or CD-quality sound. The CD-quality file will be larger and thus will take longer to download.

We’ll have more information as December rolls by, and of course we’ll announce when the service begins, which might be before Christmas.

There’s no doubt that this is a different way of doing business. The library is effectively leasing rather than acquiring titles. We do this already with our online access to magazine, journals, and newspapers; with Encyclopedia Britannica Online; with HeritageQuest.

There are issues, of course. We won’t be abandoning our own collection of books and other things. But for audiobooks, this new way makes sense. And eventually, the market may provide no other choice.

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