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Libraries without Hours

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 2007 Issue
May 10, 2007

Libraries without Hours

I love books. Our apartment has bookcases standing in our living room because the walls were already lined with bookcases. There are books in our dining room, too. You would think with so many books I’d have no need for libraries or bookstores, but you’d be wrong. I’m always coming across facts I want to check, ideas I want to research, and authors I know I should read.

Libraries let me browse, finding books I didn’t know existed. The joy of wandering “the stacks” in a university library is that I end up checking out two books for every one I knew I wanted to read.

But, to be honest, library hours are not what they used to be. Worse, university collections aren’t being updated because hardcover books are not cheap. When I was looking for books on Chaucer, it seemed Fresno State’s selection was limited to a single shelf. Tulare County’s libraries do the best they can with limited resources, too.

Thankfully, we have the World Wide Web and libraries without limited hours or limited shelf space. While I really appreciate a great librarian, the books are what I seek. It’s all about the works.

I’ve been inside university libraries three times in the last two years. During one of those visits, the research specialist asked why I wasn’t getting the journal article I wanted online. I said I liked the library, and she laughed. “At least someone does.”

When I was a child growing up in Ivanhoe, we’d visit the small Tulare County branch library once a week. I read some of the books several times, waiting for the day when I could select books from the “grown up side” of the building. Now, I check online libraries almost as often as I visited that little building in Ivanhoe.

Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/) has more than 20,000 books online. Most of the works distributed by Project Gutenberg are past their copyright, meaning they were published before 1923. These are not resources for the latest theories in science, but I’m a literature person. In some cases, authors have allowed the works to be distributed via what is known as the “commons” approach to copyright.

The first documents posted to Project Gutenberg were the founding documents of the United States and various religious texts. Ancient works, especially Greek and Roman texts, soon followed. Today, more than 400 works a month are added to the project, all prepared by volunteers.

For those unable to connect to the Internet all the time, Project Gutenberg sells CDs of famous works. You can purchase CDs by genre, such as science fiction, mysteries, poetry, or philosophical works. The books are plain text files that can be read on any computer or even a personal digital assistant (PDA), such as my trusted Palm Tungsten.

The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/) can’t match Gutenberg’s selection of texts, but there’s no better location for public domain and free audio works. As a fan of mysteries and science fiction, I’ve downloaded hundreds of classic radio dramas and “plain” audio books. Most of the audio files are in MP3 format, so I can play them almost anywhere. I’ve listened to free BBC versions of Greek plays, which is much easier for me than reading the texts.

A lot of attention has been given to Google’s offer to scan the works held by various libraries. However, access to some of these works will be limited because of copyright concerns. Google Books (http://books.google.com/) is officially a “public beta test” but already thousands of books are online. Those books not covered by copyright are scanned as images and stored in Adobe’s Portable Document Format. The benefit to this approach is that the original look of a book is preserved, including any images. However, the files are also much larger than those stored by Project Gutenberg.

You can search the text of books while connected to Google, but some of the PDF editions cannot be searched using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software once you download a particular work. I find myself preferring the aesthetics of Google’s scanned books, but using the Gutenberg editions more often. A scanned illuminated manuscript might look great, but it isn’t easy to read.

For a master list of online libraries, I suggest the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/). This Web site has dozens of links to free online libraries, including many book collections in Europe and Asia. If you want to read a classic work in French, German, or Spanish, this is the place to find it.

Because I tend to read when I’m not connected to the Internet, I’ve grown fond of AvantGo (http://www.avantgo.com). AvantGo supports handheld devices from every major PDA and phone manufacturer. After setting up a free account, you can read the New York Times, Washington Post, or any of more than 100 publications on your handheld — even when you can’t connect to the Internet.

When I synchronize my Palm calendar with my laptop computer, AvantGo updates the daily editions of several major newspapers. I can read the newspapers throughout the day, anywhere I happen to be. The International Herald Tribune and Reuters include photos with their stories, and the photos look great even on some phones.

I look forward to the day when any book, from any library, can be read via the Internet or on my Palm Pilot. The New York Public Library has started “eNYPL” for just this purpose, but you have to either live in NYC or be willing to pay $100 a year for access to their online collections. The books checked out from the eNYPL expire after three weeks, using special Digital Rights Management (DRM) software from Adobe and Microsoft.

I’d love to have the ability to checkout books from the Tulare County and Fresno State libraries for three weeks without having to return them. I’d read Chaucer on my computer or Palm and after three weeks the book would simply “vanish” from my system.

Publishers might imagine an online reader would be a bad customer, but the opposite is true. The more I read online, the more “real” books and magazines I seem to buy. Yes, I like convenience, but I also want the best books to be on my shelves, no batteries required. I still can’t imagine reading my computer screen by the pool, or taking my Palm Pilot to Pismo Beach.

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