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Tech Lab

Check out the library's high-tech tools

Web access to journals, e-books, music is free and easy

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 28, 2008
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As a young reporter, I practically pitched a tent at the local library. In the 1980s, there was nowhere else to find the books, magazines, and documents needed to properly flesh out a story. Today, you can do the same research at home, pecking on a keyboard.

You're probably thinking Google, and you're right. But for deep research, you can't beat a well-stocked library, with its books and specialized databases. Yet you can access many library resources without stirring from a chair. Using online services that cost nothing, you can scour academic journals, borrow best-selling audiobooks, and download music legally. You can even type messages to a nationwide network of librarians who will help find the answers you seek.

All you need is a broadband Internet connection and a library card. At the library's website, typing your card number gives you access to the online offerings. Even if your local library isn't state of the art, it probably belongs to a regional library consortium that provides online service. And there's always the Boston Public Library, which issues cards to any resident of Massachusetts, and to researchers in other states. Sign up for a card at the library's website, www.bpl.org.

Say you're doing serious scholarship, the kind that requires research in academic publications. The Boston Public Library provides online databases that index thousands of them, from Scientific American to the most arcane technical journals. Some publications only offer article summaries, but you can download entire articles from about 33,000 newspapers, magazines, and journals. It's a godsend for out-of-town researchers. "If you live in Springfield, you don't have to drive all the way to Boston, and you can do everything straight from home," said Scot Colford, the Boston library's Web services manager.

The only thing better than a good library is a good librarian to act as a guide. You can find them online at www.massanswers.org, a service that provides round-the-clock access to trained researchers. The Boston library and nine regional public library groups run the service, in cooperation with librarians as far away as California. Visit the site and type a question. Not only do the researchers provide assistance in real time, when I used the service recently a friendly librarian in Falmouth kept searching for more data after we logged off, and e-mailed me the results.

Still, there's no good online substitute for the library's vast supply of books. Not yet, anyway. But libraries are working on it, by offering thousands of "e-books" for reading on a computer screen, or CD and MP3 audiobooks.

"The availability of titles in this space is exploding," said Steve Potash, chief executive of OverDrive Inc., a Cleveland company that markets digital media to libraries. OverDrive currently offers about 200,000 e-books, audiobooks, videos, and music recordings, and a large part of the catalog is available from public libraries in Boston and other Massachusetts communities. Yet hardly anyone around here has noticed. Potash said that while usage is growing rapidly, no more than 5 percent of Boston library cardholders have ever downloaded one of his company's e-books or recordings.

Yesterday, Potash tried to generate interest in OverDrive by rolling up to Boston's City Hall Plaza in a "digital bookmobile," a giant tractor-trailer full of computers that demonstrate the company's technology. But promotional gimmicks can't compensate for OverDrive's biggest limitation - its incompatibility with the world's most popular portable audio player, Apple Inc.'s iPod.

To prevent unauthorized copying of OverDrive audiobooks or e-books, library patrons must download and install software that allows them to download a book or audio file and play it for a limited time - say, two weeks. After that, the file is locked and unplayable.

OverDrive uses e-book reader software from Adobe Systems Inc. which runs on Apple Macintosh computers as well as those running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. The e-books can also be read on some hand-held devices, like the Zen from Creative Technology Ltd. or Sony Corp.'s Reader Digital Book.

But the security program for audiobooks and music recordings relies on software from Microsoft Corp. It runs on Windows PCs and a variety of portable music players from companies like Creative and SanDisk Corp. But the software isn't compatible with iPods, or with Apple's Macintosh computers, so millions of potential listeners are locked out.

It's not a total lockout, though - many titles can be burned onto standard audio CDs, which can then be converted to MP3 files and played on an iPod. And in March, OverDrive began offering 3,000 titles in pure MP3, with no antipiracy lockdown. That means users can play them on any device. It also means that patrons could use the files illegally, by keeping them indefinitely or distributing free copies to friends. But a handful of publishers, eager to get their audiobooks onto iPods, have decided it's worth the risk.

Between the e-books, audiobooks, databases, and research assistance, there's more reason than ever to visit the local library, even if you don't actually go to one.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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