Friday, March 23, 2007

Working with Feeds

Suzanne has mentioned RSS feeds in previous posts. I take advantage of RSS feeds and use Bloglines to read several different blogs (including this one). Ever since I created my Bloglines account, it’s much easier to find the time to read through these blogs and keep myself up to date on what is happening in library land and other places. In addition to some popular library blogs, I also subscribe to a few non library blogs that talk about innovation, customer service, and training.

On one of these blogs (LibrarianInBlack), I read a posting that I thought might be useful. It’s about FeedBlendr, a service that blends several different feeds into one convenient package. What do I mean by that? I created a blend that looks for international articles in CNN, the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times. What do I get? Check it out at It’s one page that lists the headlines and the first couple sentences of every article that was featured in the International/World sections of the two papers and CNN. I no longer have to go to each individual website. Even better I can include this blended feed in my Bloglines account, so I don’t even have to go the website listed above.

I haven’t played with another feature in FeedBlendr which is some code that will let you include your blended feed on a website. If you have been thinking about adding feeds to your website, you might want to consider playing with FeedBlendr. You can easily add a link like the one above or even better you can use the code provided by FeedBlendr to have the feed work like the one you see on the right of Montana BiblioTechies blog. Library patrons can see the headlines and follow an article that interests them.

The blended feed option is also nice, because it adds value to your feed. Instead of having a feed that only lists The New York Times, you can add some value by blending it with other newspapers. Now the library patron can check out news around the world with one click.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

IM vs. Virtual Reference

I don't really mean that this has to be an either or situation but that seems to be the place many librarians find themselves at this point in time. We've invested in products like Question Point so that it may seem like a step back to consider also offering reference assistance via instant messaging.

The advantage to communicating with patrons via IM tools like Google Talk or AIM or Yahoo Messenger is that some of your library's patrons (or potential patrons) are already familiar with and using them on a regular basis. For these individuals the chances that they'll be willing to IM you a request for information is probably greater than the chance they'll go into Ask A Librarian. That might appear daunting, particularly if the question is a simple one like "Are you open on Saturday?" Or "Do you have any graphic novels?"

As Bruce said yesterday, we need to get into the habit of saying yes to more things. So let's say yes to IM. And for those of you who've veered away from it's use in libraries because you didn't want all those obtrusive programs on your public access computers, there's an easy web-based solution You or your patrons can use meebo to check multiple accounts. It's easy and certainly more secure than having individual contacts and buddies and messages stored on library computers.

All of these IM accounts are free. Most come with advertising but that's the way of the world. Here's where to go to set up accounts on the big three:
And if you want someone to practice with, I have accounts on AIM and Google Talk. Send an instant message to sreymer.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

using podcasts in libraries

As much as I like iTunes, I don't think I'd put it on a public access computer in a library. For one thing, you don't want people subscribing to a bunch of podcasts that are going to eat up your bandwidth and disk storage space. For another, there are a number of podcasts with explicit content that are probably not appropriate for general listening. Can internet filters screen out podcasts with explicit content? Might be an interesting experiment. Leave a comment if you have any insights.

So, how can you make use of some of this great content? First, you might want to consider whether or not you want to. Listening or watching a podcast in the library will require either speakers (which may disturb others) or headphones. Downloading and copying audio or video files to flash drives or MP3 players will no doubt take some time and attention from staff. But these may also constitute valued customer service, especially if you're in an area where broadband connections for the public are far from common.

Probably the easiest way to make podcast content available to your users is to integrate it into a Protopage. You can see that I have a podcast widget on both the Nancy Pearl page and the News page.
Since these are reading actual podcast feeds, I don't have to update them. They are updated automatically whenever a new program is added. All a patron has to do to listen to one of the programs is click on play. The player is built into Protopage.

You can also select individual programs and link them from your library's web page or blog. For example here's:

A Beginner's Guide to Podcasting: Part 1 - A Consumer's Guide from If you're interested in more information about this broadcast, check out the event web page.

You can click on that link and listen to the MP3 file in whatever media software is set up on your computer for MP3 files. If you put this on a library web page, you'll probably also want to include a link to a free media player like Windows Media Player.

Another option is to link to the program's website for audio/video content. Often the website creators will offer additional options for viewing or listening to content.

A good example is Yellowstone InDepth that I mentioned yesterday as an example of video podcasts. The video available from iTunes was in a copy-protected format. On the website, they offer a .WMV Windows Media Viewer option in a dial-up or broadband format. I can also save it to my computer and convert it to play on my MP3 player. Yea! Nothing like viewing the wonders of Yellowstone on a 2 inch screen. But the point is it works and the National Park Service was savvy enough to accommodate users with different devices.

This reinforces my view that there is great potential in this area as well as some problems, but it's exciting nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

video podcasts

I have to mention video podcasts because they're the latest. But I decided to put them into a separate category because I think "they're not quite ready for prime time." There are a lot of issues with copy protection, incompatible formats, conversion software... I get all excited when I find some great content and then exceedingly frustrated when I can't get that content to work on my player.

Now that iPods and other MP3 players have video capabilities, there may be interest in downloading free video content to watch on your computer or portable device. I'm really not a big fan of watching videos on a microscopic screen but the quality is amazingly good. And it's a trend worth knowing about. You need to pay attention to formats particularly if you plan to watch it on a portable player. For example, keep in mind that iTunes uses some Apple only copy protected formats. So, while you should be able to watch virtually any format on your computer (with the right software), it would be difficult to get them to play on a device other than an iPod.

There may be some video programs that you'd like to download onto your library computers for people to watch, but be sure to check them out first to see which players they use. The following is a good cautionary lesson.

I was really excited to find some video podcasts about Yellowstone Park on iTunes
  • Inside Yellowstone - 25 episodes each around 2 minutes long introducing park highlights and features
  • Yellowstone InDepth - 5 episodes thus far running from 3 to 9 minutes long with more detailed information on geysers, bears, etc.
I thought, what a great thing to have loaded on your library computers, especially for libraries in the Yellowstone Park area! You could put them in a folder on your desktop and let people watch them on your computers.

But as I looked into it further, I discovered that these videos used a copy-protected .M4V format. When I tried to open the file, Windows didn't recognize it and wasn't able to find a program that would play it. I discovered two options that would work - the player within iTunes (but that's a painfully small screen) and Quick Time. So, they might be worth downloading and adding to a desktop or two as long as you have Quick Time on the computer and set up the video properties to work with Quick Time.

Next, I wanted to see if they could be converted to play on my Sansa player. It looks like I'd have to purchase some shareware to convert it to the modified Quick Time format that my player uses. A lot of this gets into some dodgy legal areas so I'd advise libraries to steer clear of video conversion.

In summary, I'd say there's some interesting video content being produced and distributed as podcasts. Keep in mind, however, that there are competing standards and copy protections in place. You certainly want to test it with your software and players to make sure it works before you go public with your latest find!


I have to say I LOVE podcasts for free audio content. As someone who spends a lot of time driving around by myself, podcasts ensure that I have a great variety of things to listen to.

What do you need to listen to podcasts?
  • A computer with a broadband internet connection
  • Podcast client software
If you want to listen to podcasts on your computer, that's probably all you need. If you have a Windows computer with XP, you probably already have Windows Media Player. That will play MP3 files. And some of the podcast client software has players built in, e.g., iTunes.

But what's also great about podcasts is, you can copy them onto MP3 players and take them with you. We'll talk a bit about MP3 players later.

Podcast client software

Podcasts are really nothing more than audio files embedded in RSS feeds. If you don't understand RSS feeds this explanation isn't going to help much. We will talk about RSS in a future posting - promise! But for now, you just need to know that like any RSS feed, you need to subscribe to it and you also need software that will go out to the internet and check when new content is available and download it to your computer. That's what differentiates a podcast from just downloading audio content. You subscribe and future content is downloaded automatically.

There are lots of options for free podcast client software. There's a long list available on Podcasting News. But I have to say, my favorite hands down is iTunes. You can download a copy of the software for free. It works on both Windows and Macs. Podcasts work on iPods and other MP3 players.

You can use the iTunes store to browse or search for podcasts of interest. If you find something you like on iTunes, you can generally just click on the Subscribe button and get the latest as well as a list of earlier programs from which you can select any you'd like to download and listen to in the future. My mother has macular degeneration and listens to a lot of audio content instead of reading. So, I download a number of podcasts for her every week on my computer, copy them onto a flash drive and then onto her computer. All she has to do is click on the file and it plays on her computer with Windows Media Player.

MP3 Players

For my own use, I copy the podcasts onto an MP3 player. I have both flavors - Windows and an iPod Nano. While the Nano works really seamlessly with iTunes (you just drag files onto the iPod icon in iTunes), my SanDisk works with iTunes MP3 podcast files as well. There's just an extra step. I have to open Windows Explorer to copy files from my computer to MP3 player.

There are a lot of different non-iPod MP3 players out there. I don't have any specific recommendations. I think it's probably best to go into a store with a lot of different models and take a look at the controls and the feel and decide what features are important to you. Do you want to watch video, listen to the radio, record? But do keep in mind a couple of differences.
  • Music bought from iTunes will only play on iPods (and your computer).
  • Music bought from other online stores will not play on iPods.
  • Downloaded audiobooks from services like Overdrive and Netlibrary will not play on iPods.
  • MP3s without copy protection should play on any MP3 device.
Podcast content

There is a lot of new content being produced as podcasts all the time. I suspect there really is something for just about everyone out there. I'll share just a few of my favorites.

Radio programming - I'm an avid radio listener who doesn't have time to catch all my favorite programs so I'm thrilled that many are available as podcasts:
Technology - as you might expect, there are a lot of good tech-related podcasts
The above three are all part of the TWiT netcast network. Leo Laporte is a Tech TV alum. Other former Tech TV folks have gone on form Revision 3. You'll hear about their video podcasts later.
Library-related - I expect I'll be adding to this list but many are rather inconsistent at present.
Searching for more content? If you're using iTunes, searching iTunes' directory is probably the easiest way to find more content that can be easily subscribed to. But, if you want to go beyond that, there area other podcast directories available. You can easily find them with a Google search. What I tend to do is go to the websites of the content producers, e.g., or or or They will often have links to and lists of available podcasts. Many are set up so you can subscribe via iTunes by just clicking on a link and being taken to their iTunes page to subscribe. I suspect this is a smoother process if you're using a Mac. Somehow, iTunes can never be found on my computer so I have to go through several warning popup windows to complete the process. But I eventually get there.

Feel free to send me your favorite podcasts and I'll list them in a future posting.

Friday, March 2, 2007

internet fears

One of the things that seems to show up again and again in relation to the Internet is fear. The most recent incarnation is the reemergence of DOPA (Deleting Online Predators Act). Apparently, Rep. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican has reintroduced the act. For more information, see the recent CNET story.

What the Internet really represents for a lot of people is a frightening loss of control. While we could have some interesting discussions about what this loss of control means to parents (feel free to offer comments in this area), I'd like to focus on what this loss of control means to librarians and IT people.

I've been thinking about the IT angle for the past week or so as MSL struggles with ITSD over implementation of some new web tools. Looking at it from their perspective, I can see why they're not crazy about things like CMS (Content Management Systems), blogs, wikis and the like. Security is their chief concern. They're trying to keep unauthorized people out of their servers. We can be seen as threats to security by seeking to let more people in as blog and wiki contributors, commenters and the like. No wonder so many library blogs are on blogspot instead of their own servers. Sometimes it's just easier to go around than to confront. But it does show a bit of a disconnect as our library web pages continue to be static top-down information sources with no interactivity. And we go outside them to talk about what really matters and connect with people.

As librarians, we've spent a lot of time trying to control information - in a good way, of course. We've introduced controlled vocabulary and cataloging structures. We've sought to evaluate information and offer diverse, balanced and authoritative viewpoints.

Then the Internet comes along. People start tagging. Wait! What about our controlled vocabulary - Library of Congress Subject Headings?! You can't just assign any old TAG! Yes, they can and they do! And it seems to work. It may not be controlled but it's certainly more intuitive.

We're also facing a major paradigm shift in who is a consumer vs. a provider of information. Now that anyone can create a blog and have it picked up by web search tools, how do we decide which internet information sources are worthwhile? What is the librarian's role in providing access to information? Should we be acting as a gatekeeper to attempt to ensure quality information for our patrons? Or should we be enabling them to establish their own information networks? If we try to hang on too long to the gatekeeper role, we risk making ourselves irrelevant as patrons increasingly work around us. But, if we abandon our quest for quality and balanced information, we also risk becoming irrelevant. After all, Google is still far easier to use than most library search tools.

I think there are several things we need to be doing.
  1. We need to continually push to make our catalogs and databases easier to search and use.
  2. Part of that is making sure that we can add our resources to search tools our patrons are already using like the Firefox search box.
  3. Allow patrons to be able to tag search results and make it easy to add them to bookmarking tools they're already using like Furl or
  4. Make use of technologies. Why shouldn't patrons be able to review library materials and/or make recommendations and lists?
  5. Why not have librarian recommendations and lists as well? It's a good way to highlight parts of your collection that you feel warrant another look.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

google alerts

Are there a few topics that you like to follow so you can know what's being said about them in the news, blogs, whatever?

Google offers you a couple of tools you can use to stay on top of certain subjects. One is Google Alerts.
From the Google Search page, choose More and Even more >>

From More Google Products, choose Alerts.

Enter the keywords you'd like to search, select what type of search, you can choose from News, Blogs, Web, Groups or Comprehensive. Provide the email address where you'd like the alerts sent and Create Alert.

This is a keyword search, so depending on the terms you use, you may get some irrelevant results but it can always be modified.

I have a google alert set for montana library. I get everything that shows up in the news with the words "Montana" and "library" so there are a few where I scratch my head in befuddlement, but I do run across some interesting articles that I never would have found otherwise as well.