Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An eReader and the Library

I have a first generation Nook, and it's getting a little unreliable. So I looked around and stumbled on a Kobo Mini on sale and decided to give it a go. It's small, lightweight; perfect for sticking in a pocket or purse to have with me wherever I go. I was able to add my Nook books via Adobe Digital Editions, as promised, and most of my small collection of Kindle books don't have DRM, so those went on easily with Calibre. I'm using Calibre for most of my ebook management and I haven't had any problems with it interfacing with the Kobo.

I wondered how it would do with library materials, so I went hunting. As it happens, almost all of our downloads are PDF. Even most of our ebooks are set up to allow PDF downloads of chapters, but not full book downloads in ebook format (ePub, or whatever). And PDFs don't work great on small screens.

The Kobo Mini does have a magnification option for PDFs, but it's a pain shifting the window around to read. Articles in 2 columns aren't bad--a single column is just about right, but full pages are awkward.

I decided to try the conversion features of Calibre and converted a number of PDF downloads to ePubs. For the most part, especially for the publisher-generated PDFs with good metadata and background text, it worked fine. Calibre specifically notes that they convert using the embedded text if available, rather than re-OCRing the image. Some of the line-by-line formatting can be a little weird, with odd line wraps and page numbers stuck in the middle of sentences, but it's certainly readable.

A multiple column PDF article, without publisher metadata, is a disaster to convert. Single lines from each column end up together, and it's not worth trying to pick them apart. It would be less work to scan each column separately and then OCR.

We have several scanners, which have pretty much replaced photocopiers in our library. I gave those a whirl, too. When scanning to PDF, you pretty much get exactly what you'd expect: an image of each page, a little grainy on the basic settings, but readable. Doing a "searchable PDF", which does some basic OCR, did produce something I could convert to ePub without too much trouble, but definitely had OCR issues. Things like 'j' instead of 'i' and 'rn' instead of 'm'. I did a couple of pages scanned to Word, as well, which had the same OCR issues, but I could correct them. That was certainly the most work, but also produced the best ePub, once I corrected all the oddities in Word and saved to RTF for conversion in Calibre. This is essentially the same process that produces Gutenberg books: scan, OCR, correct, convert.

Our public library has an Overdrive collection, and those ebooks that are primarily text based are quite readable (via Adobe Digital Editions). I tried a cookbook, and that didn't do well. It's no better than a PDF, and I have to scroll around the pages in the magnifier.

So, at some point in the past, someone asked me to recommend an eReader. I'd say, if all you want to do is read text, then an inexpensive e-Ink reader, like the Kobo Mini or a basic Kindle, is a nice reader. I really like the e-Ink technology, it's easy on the eyes and the batteries last and last. (My first gen Nook, with its failing battery that wasn't too hot to begin with, still lasts about as long as my new-ish smart phone!) If you want to do anything else, including lots of reading things like PDFs downloaded from your local university library, you are probably better off getting a tablet and loading eReader apps for your books.


Friday, October 11, 2013

There is no verb for what I do

Librarians need to hire one of those PR firms that comes up with product names. One of the good ones, that is. There are too many things we do that don't have names or those names refer to jobs that are lost in a fog of time and history.

What exactly do I do at the Reference Desk? I'm not necessarily referring, though I do that sometimes. I answer a lot of questions, but the "Answer Desk" doesn't really sound right--though it does sound better than Reference Desk, come to think of it.

BI is now a sexual preference, not bibliographic instruction--which no one outside the library really understood even when it was still biblio-based. Library instruction is at least more accurate and understandable, even if I'm often instructing on things beyond the library these days (web search technique, information ethics, etc.)

We talk about information literacy and technological fluency on this campus. So students should be more competent with technology than with information, is that it?

I tell students that what we call "databases" really means "searchable collections of online stuff."

At a former job, we replaced the link to the library catalog with a link that said, "Books and more" because students were telling us they didn't know what a library catalog was (someplace you order books?) So we immediately got a dozen calls asking what we had done with the library catalog!

Those handy "peer reviewed" check boxes in databases get you articles from journals that publish peer reviewed articles. But the articles are not guaranteed to be peer reviewed because those journals also publish news, opinions, and just plain not-peer-reviewed articles. (A colleague asked students what a peer reviewed article was. They suggested a blog post with comments, because that's what they might do with their "peers." Were they wrong?)

A journal can be a periodical, or a serial, but some things called "journal" are actually newspapers, which are also periodicals (and serials).

A student was looking at the library map and asked me if she could get help with MS Word from "Technical Services."  And, are technical services more technical than public services these days?

The thing that really got me, however, was when I sat down to write my philosophy statement for my promotion file. The teaching faculty generally call it their "Teaching Philosophy". But, THERE IS NO VERB FOR WHAT I DO.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Thoughts on OEM and higher education

I speak on open access (OA) and open educational resources (OER) regularly, and I'm often asked what I think about the Open Education Movement (OEM). That question generally comes in the form of "Do you think OEM is going to destroy universities/higher education?"

Generally, my answer is "No." Among other things, it's hard to destroy anything so deeply rooted in a culture as higher ed is in ours. But that doesn't seem to be a sufficient answer, so I started thinking more specifically about it. I'm working my way though those thoughts here.

As I see it, higher education has traditionally performed several functions that have all gotten mushed together: content, teaching, certification, and research. Each is affected differently by OEM.

1) Content. Sorry folks, content has flown the coop. With some self discipline, learning skills, and a decent Internet connection, you can pretty much learn the basics of anything you want without setting foot on a university campus. You may not be able to advance too far, and some fields are harder than others, but you can learn an awful lot about an awful lot of things for the cost of Internet access. Actually, you always could learn on your own, but the self educated scholar of the past needed access to a physical library, so geographical concerns were more important. (Geographical concerns are still an issue; just ask anyone who has had to deal with trying to connect to the Internet when 1) electricity is an issue; 2) Internet connections are few and far between; or 3) politics dictates what you can and cannot view online. But it is easier now.)

2) Teaching. I mentioned self-discipline and learning skills above. Teaching and learning are what transform information into knowledge. I keep thinking about that every time I go on a weather site. These days, you can get a ton of data about the weather: temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, radar pictures and videos, etc., etc. However, that won't tell me what the weather is going to be this afternoon, because I don't have the knowledge to interpret that data. I probably could sit down and read meteorology textbooks, watch weather videos, and eventually figure out what I need to know. But it would be much easier to take a class in meteorology, where someone will distill the most important points, demonstrate them in several ways, ask students to demonstrate the analysis and interpretation needed and correct them when things go wrong.

That's the hardest part about learning on your own. You may know something's wrong, but you can't always figure out what or how to correct it quickly. And the more you do something wrong, the harder it is to get it right--just like any bad habit. A good teacher catches those bad habits before they get reinforced. A good teacher can head you off before you go down an unprofitable avenue of learning (unless that detour will be good for you!)

There is the question of whether a poor teacher is worse than no teacher. It probably depends on the particular type of poor teaching. We also seem to remember poor teaching better than good teaching, and even more we remember poor learning, which is affected by much, much more than the quality of the teaching. It's possible for a good learner to learn from a poor teacher and a poor learner will struggle with the best teacher. I often feel that opportunities for learning are expanding while the skills for learning are dwindling.

3) Certification. Also know as grades and degrees. As a society, we trust our institutes of education (higher and otherwise) to tell us when someone has reached a level of proficiency in a subject. This is why diploma mills upset us, and why the talk of a "higher education bubble" seems so threatening. What if educational certification doesn't mean what we think it means? This is probably the greatest threat OEM poses currently: what if there is another way to certify proficiency, and what if it doesn't match up with traditional grades and degrees?

This is probably related to the scholarly publishing crisis in a way. We count "good research" as research published in "good journals", but what if there is another way to judge? For instance, the aggregator model would turn journal publishing on its head: publishing is the easy part, in open access repositories, but then comes the peer review via some sort of commenting system, and finally journal "aggregators" would select particularly well received research to be republished. Journals would become a stamp of approval, not a gateway.

4) Research. One of the purposes of universities is the production of new knowledge. Even small teaching colleges encourage research (though they can't always support it.) One of the great draws for a good college or university is being able to learn from people doing neat stuff, and possibly having the opportunity to do neat stuff with them. That would be difficult to replicate outside of a higher education institution, though it's probably possible in some fields and for some projects. Citizen science is a lot of fun but it's not the same experience as being in the lab with someone. I've done both, and learned a lot from both; they just aren't the same.

So content is lost, certification is chancy, but teaching (at least good teaching) and research could be what higher education needs to concentrate on.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Disaster planning in distance education

Do you know what would happen to your online education if a disaster strikes? You might lose power, Internet, have to evacuate, etc. and not be able to attend your courses. Do you have a plan to let the class know you will be out of touch? Have you backed up your computer (off site, preferably) so that you won't loose work if you computer is damaged (water, lightning, theft)?

And what if your institution looses power? You might be fine, but wondering why you can't log into anything. Do you know how to check if your campus is closed? (I have gotten calls and emails from out of state students wondering why they can't get in touch with anyone. Well, we haven't been around to answer the phone and the server's been down. No, really.)

So take a few minutes to enter a classmate's or professor's email address and/or phone number into your phone, back up your work, and check how your campus alerts the community in emergencies. If bad weather is expected, post that. At least you won't have disappeared without a trace as far as your online class is concerned.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

FQA: iPad edition

From Evernote:

FQA: iPad edition

About two weeks ago, all the librarians at MPOW got iPads. We had a retreat day, where we got to set up and start to play with our new toys. I immediately added some of my favorite apps, like Evernote, and started wondering how much of my work I could do on this new 'toy'.

I now have apps to take notes, log into Blackboard Learn 9 to the course in embedded in, telnet into our staff library system module to check patron records and circ stats, check and update my calendar, get my email, and view my citation manager account. I'm experimenting with chat clients to monitor my webchat. The web interfaces are quite good for most of our databases, the library catalog, library classroom calendar, and subject guides, though I am experimenting with database apps. Ebsco's is very nice, though sized for an iPhone. I'm still having trouble with Gale's (which was awful on my Android phone). Several other databases have either mobile interfaces or apps, so I still have some things to try out

What I don't have yet includes a satisfactory Office suite. I can do basic word processing in either the built in Notes app or Evernote, but there are no free word processing apps that do anything beyond basic text. Evernote can include links and pictures, but the only way to get something out is to email it. This post, in fact, is being written in Evernote (I'll have to add a picture), and will then be sent via Blogger's post by email feature. We'll just see how that goes.

Now, I also can't imagine wanting to do a lot of word processing on the iPad without a separate keyboard.

(I could, I suppose, use Evernote's recording features, but then this would be podcast, not a blog.)

The iPad does, of course, also have a camera, so I could do a video blog. There is also a trick for screen capture, so I could include screen shots. But I think I'll just leave you with this great image, from the Library and Information Techology at Bucknell University Facebook Page. (Yes, of course I have Facebook set up on this, too. And the Page Manager app, so I really can do work on it!)


Monday, May 07, 2012

Not-quite-open library access for Open Education

One of the big problems for the Open Education Movement has been the lack of access to scholarly resources, such as the scholarly journals that libraries subscribe to individually or as part of article databases. As anyone who has tried to use Google Scholar or Google Books for research knows, you could end up spending a huge amount of money to buy access to the articles and ebooks that you need. And some things just aren't available online at all.

One of big and early players in the "independent scholarship" market was Questia. Questia marketed heavily to home-schoolers and online learners without a nearby or online accessible library. (I've always wondered how many online learners have paid for a Questia subscription without realizing they had access to online library resources through their own institution.) While Questia does not take subscriptions from libraries, the search interface is available for free. Gale/Cengage, a big player in the library database market, owns Questia (they also recently own HighBeam, a professional/business full text service). I do still find it somewhat disturbing that you can't find out how much the subscription is without signing up first.

Now, another player in the library database market is opening up to independent scholars. Proquest is now offering Udini. Udini will offer access to Proquest's own unique content, such as dissertations (Proquest owns the huge dissertation/thesis collection formerly known as UMI and the source of Dissertation Abstracts.) Instead of a subscription, users can pay-as-you-go, paying as low as $.99 for an article (article prices vary) and $4.99 for a short term, view-only access to a dissertation ($37 for a downloadable version, which has been the standard through their Dissertation Express ordering service.) Short and long term subscriptions are also available. Proquest is also said to be planning an alumni option, which could be really popular for those going through "library-withdrawl" after graduation.

In related "open" news, JSTOR recently announced the opening of it's "Early Journal Content" (pre-1923 in the US and pre-1870 elsewhere). JSTOR is covered by Google Scholar, so their material regularly comes up in searches already--but it was rarely available outside of university libraries. 

At this point, I think it would still be hard to get the equivalent of a college education without some kind of access to a college library. But I do think it's coming, possibly very soon. Maybe not for free, but for "reasonable", especially if you compare the prices to college tuition. Universities and libraries are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge, but could be instead the guides and mapmakers. We need to start seriously considering what that means.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Online presence maintenance

  1. Deleted Google Web Search History ( I've had a lot of the privacy features on for months, but why not start a new privacy policy with a clear slate?
  2. Downloaded SRWare's Iron Browser, a browser based on the same code as Google's Chrome, but without Google's presence attached. So far, it's worked just like Chrome and will install Chrome plugins from the Chrome webstore. My only peeve is that the "import bookmark" feature wouldn't import from Chrome, which has been my main home browser for some time.
  3. Debating what to do with Facebook Timeline. Do I just 'Get Timeline' and get it over with now? Do I go and reset all my past posts to higher privacy levels? What should I use as my 'cover' picture, something that can go with my current Online Librarian photo?
  4. Liking the look of Timeline on the Buley Library Facebook Page. I thought when I first saw Timeline that it would work well for organizations and products, better than for individuals. Of course, we are, essentially, products for Facebook, so that does make sense. "If you don't pay for the service, you are the product." We will probably make the new look live in the next week or so. I'm currently trying a screen shot of a satellite map of campus with the library marked as the 'cover' image, but now I'm leaning towards a collage of pictures from within the library.
  5. Still trying to balance the desire to have everything in one place with the fear of having everything in one place. Having stuff scattered in multiple services means it's harder to keep updated, but it's more secure, since at the very least I'm not likely to lose access to everything at once. There is no "good" answer to this, of course, merely a shifting balance. Kind of like everything else.