Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Downloadable Media

For the last year, I have been the first line of tech support for the MLC Digital Libraries. This is a consortium of libraries around Michigan who share a system of downloadable media. The system includes ebooks, e-audio, e-video, and a portable format called Mobipocket. There are 26 libraries in the consortium. Rather than have individual patrons of each library go straight to Overdrive (the provider of the service), their questions go to me first. If I can't answer one, I pass it on to Overdrive's support team. The group recently decided to change the tech support system so that each library will handle tech support for its own patrons, rather than having them all filter to one person. While I have learned a lot from the tech support process and about the Overdrive product, I will be relieved to have this job shared with the other libraries.

I love the downloadable system! I download e-audios to my Creative Zen MP3 player. I think the check-out and download process is very easy to follow. Overdrive recently improved their Overdrive Media Console drastically, so it is easier than ever. People generally run into trouble with eBooks, which are in PDF format and require a Digital Rights Management file to be downloaded with the title. For some reason, DRM is trickier with the PDF's than the other formats.

Coming soon, Overdrive will make MP3 audio formats available that do not require DRM. Of course, that means that checking out and downloading these titles are on the honor system with patrons. Many publishers and authors are NOT willing to get on board with this idea - and understandably so. Therefore, the catalog of available titles is really limited so far. Also, the MP3 format are twice as big and take twice as long to download as the WMA audio files (the ones that include DRM). The upside really is only that DRM-free MP3 audio books will be compatible with Apple hardware like iPods.

The MLC Digital Libraries group is going to start offering downloadable music in the next few months. Again, the selection is very limited. These are NOT MP3 files - they DO require DRM (ie. No iPod compatibility). It is really just classical, blues, and folk music so far. Libraries can also upload local music from bands in their area, which is a nice feature. Of course, there is paperwork to get the permission of the artists to make their music available through the shared system.

How do I feel about all this? Well, libraries are not trying to be Blockbuster, Borders, or a music store. The goal of the MLC system is to keep up with patron demand for popular titles and formats, rather than offer a broad collection with titles and genres that the public can "discover," but which they maybe would not purchase. I like the idea of giving them what they want, and I support that goal. However, a small part of me has always liked the idea that the public can discover things at the library that they didn't know they wanted, didn't come looking for, but just happened upon while browsing. I think there is enough variety in the MLC system to please the masses AND provide some surprises too.

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