Electronic Eye December 2010

Electronic Audio: Looking for Success

Kathleen Meulen

December 2010

Here’s my dream:  A kid checks out a book from my library.  Perhaps it’s a book that’s he has to read for class and it’s just a little bit above his reading level.  Maybe he takes a look at it and notices all the dense print and confusing words.  Or perhaps it’s just a book that he’s choosing for pleasure and loves hearing the sound of a book being read aloud by a really good reader.

So he asks, “Can I have audio with that?”

And I say, “Sure!” and then hand him an audio book.

But it’s never as simple as that.

While my library has slowly built up a strong collection of  Playaways, which are the all-in-one MP3 players that have only one book on loaded on them and are very simple for students to use, we only have eighty-one of the moderately expensive little gadgets.  The rest of my collection is a well-intentioned mish-mash of books on CD, books on MP3-CD, books on CASSETTE (gasp!), AND electronic audiobooks downloadable from the Internet from my one audiobook online resource.   These downloadable books can be transferred to a portable device, but only some of those books can be transferred to an iPod.

So what began as a simple request turns into a problem-solving strategy session with a lot of questions.  Does the teen have access to an MP3 device?  Is it, or is it not an iPod?  Will the file that I have available for download work on his iPod?  Can he bring the device in “with the cord that connects it to the computer” so that I can teach him how to transfer it over? Can he wait for the  Playaway that I have of that book to return to the library?  Or is he willing to deal with the CD version? Does he have a CD player at home?

It’s not a very efficient way to do business.

During moments like the one that I just described, I remind myself that my library cannot compete with either Audible.com, the one-stop-shop for all things audiobook or iTunes, the one-stop-shop for all things iPod-y in the same way that I cannot compete with a bookstore in terms of new titles.  What my library brings to the table is the chance to borrow without having to buy,  and what I bring to the table is my expertise in helping the student find the right read in the first place.

But I would like to work towards greater success in pairing the reader with the text AND the audio when they request it.  Here’s my report from the trenches and my reviews of products.  The first is about the Playaway, a format that I’ve been using for several years now.  The second is a review of NetLibrary for audiobooks.  The third is a review of an app that lets you listen to free audio books on iPads, iPod Touch, and iPhone and doesn’t require you to sync up the device with a computer before you listen.



Their Web site claims that 99 percent of librarians who use Playaways would suggest them to another library and it is easy to see why.  This format is easy to circulate for librarians and easy for patrons to use. It is an MP3 player that has been pre-loaded with only one title.  It is about the size of a deck of cards and the cover art and title information has been affixed to the player itself.  It circulates inside of a plastic box that is about the size of a VHS tape and there is room inside of the box for a lanyard so that it can be worn around the neck, and a set of headphones. The instructions are printed on the box but hardly anyone ever needs to use them to understand the machine’s clearly marked buttons.  There is a small window that tells the listener what chapter they are in and also indicates other functions such as a countdown for powering off.

Since a library acquiring a Playaway is paying both for the rights to the media as well as a basic MP3 player, the price is around $50 and it doesn’t seem to matter where you buy it from.  The Playaway Web site has Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero for $54.99 as does Follett’s Titlewave Web site (http://www.titlewave.com) where many school librarians shop.  The Playaway Web site also has a standing order program (SOP) which does offer some discounts as well as a way to keep current in this format.

I’ve used the Playaway format for four years now and while most of my machines have managed to survive heavy use from pre-teens and young adults, the major weakness is the headphone jack.  I have had to retire around fifteen (out of 81) devices because the headphone jack has pulled away from the connections inside the unit.  The reason why this happens is because kids frequently wrap their headphones around the unit… despite the fact that they’ve been asked not to.



NetLibrary is a division of EBSCO publishing and is a solution that helps libraries provide eContent to patrons.  eContent includes both ebooks and audio book files but I will be focusing only on audiobooks during this column.  My school’s library purchased into this online resource as a part of a larger, statewide consortium initiative that also took care of tailoring the eContent.  I’m going to focus more on my efforts to roll out use of this resource to my patrons and the pitfalls that I’ve encountered along the way.

The basic NetLibrary interface is easily searchable with a pull-down menu that allows a user to do a full-text keyword search or limit by author, title, and subject.  More advanced searching limits by date, publisher, and language.  Users can also drill down using broad subjects and genres.  The details screen lists a summary from the publisher, the running time of the audio book, and, most important, whether the audio book is available in WMA format or MP3 format.

Each detail screen reminds the user that only the MP3 format can be played on an iPod.  The details for every WMA format screen actually has the cancel slash through the iPod.

This may be where the clarity ends, though.

There are two ways to checkout, download, and transfer your audio and you need to make certain that you are doing the right one.  The preferred method is to use a separate program that you install on your computer which is called the NetLibrary Media Center.  It is considered the “Deluxe” way of managing this resource. This center looks gorgeous with the book’s cover art popping off of a black background.  A user can also use this program to browse and search for more books from the online resource.  A menu at the top will let a user see what items they have checked out.  For each item, there’s a “transfer to portable” button to click once you’ve synced up your device with your computer.  Users can be confident that the Media Center recognizes their device because the type of device shows up in the bottom, right-hand corner of the screen.

. . . Unless you are an iPod user.  If you are an iPod user, you must use the manual download which just downloads the file onto your computer.  You use iTunes to transfer it over to the actual device.

The only way to get the MP3 files on an iPod is to use the “Manual Download” option which is sometimes hidden behind the “Plus” sign that often indicates that there are more things to explore.  There is also a third, “middle-of-the-road” option that allows users greater guidance in downloading without it being a “one-click” operation.   The whole thing requires users to wade through the options and discover the one that is best for them but when you consider the number of portable devices that this one online resource is attempting to support, I’m pleasantly surprised that the process is as straightforward as it is.

But the next review offers something more straightforward.

Audiobooks and Free Audiobooks App by Cross Forward Consulting available from the iTunes App store.


I spent the summer downloading and enjoying the free audiobooks that  are available from this easy-to-use audiobooks app by Cross Forward Consulting.  Their Web site boasts over 3,500 audiobooks that are available for quick download directly to a smart phone or an iPad.  The content comes from the LibriVox project (http://www.librivox.org) which finds volunteers to read books that are in the public domain.  After sampling several,  I will have to say that some narrators are much better than others. I was suitably impressed by the narrator of the first book I listened to: Ruth Golding, reading Riddle of the Purple Emperor by Thomas Hanshewe. I have yet to find another with the same clear pronounciation and lovely English accent.  With most of the narrators, there’s the occasional mispronounced name or word but it generally is not a major distraction.

The fact that users don’t have to download the file for transfer over to the device is what we are going to see in the future and I appreciated the ease-of-use for this app.  I can certainly recommend it to my students who have access to a device like a smartphone or iPad.

After working for eight years as head librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state. Please e-mail comments to kmeulen@bainbridge.wednet.edu.



  1. Tami Kruger says:

    Kathy – you are very wise and this is a fantastic article. I hadn’t thought about the audio files bringing kids in that wanted to read, but couldn’t – or at least couldn’t at that level. I guess I always assumed they were for road trips or kids that were lazy. You’ve opened my eyes! Good luck in the new age of libraries and books. I am so grateful my daughter is such an avid and strong reader. It takes a lot of pressure off of us as parents. ~ Tami Kruger

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