Electronic Eye August 2012

Catalist Digital

Kathleen Muelen

August 2012

Every year I host an all-school Read based on the “One Book One School” and “One Book One Community” models.  Even though my school has only two grades, I feel that is not possible to select only one book to read in my community.  I like to affirm reader choice whenever possible, so I select ten titles that all have the same theme.  The books are chosen from several different genres in order to appeal to many different readers.  We choose a theme that relates to our school’s climate-building and anti-bullying efforts and this year our theme is courage.  We will feature books that have characters who find the courage to stand up for someone else. One of this year’s titles will be R.J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, 2012). In Wonder, a boy with disturbing facial anomalies attempts to attend a mainstream school for the first time.

Parent volunteers visit our school on our special day to talk to one book group about their read.  In the four years that we have been running this event, it has become popular with the parents and teachers and also helps to bring students closer together.  I also like the synergy that is created when we are looking at a theme like courage by reading and talking about differing titles.  Many of our students go on to read more than one book in our thematic collection.

The hardest part of pulling off this all-school read is not trying to find the more than fifty parents and community volunteers that it takes to facilitate all the reading groups or even trying to pull in enough print copies of the most popular titles.  It is not even trying to get all of the language arts teachers to insert the project into their classroom activities in a meaningful way.  The most difficult part of the entire read is trying to make sure that every student successfully finishes the book.

That’s when I wind up relying heavily on audio books.  Audio books help me level the playing field for all readers, some of whom read at low reading level but can discuss their impressions of the book with their peers.  For the past several years, I’ve cobbled together an audio book collection that includes Playaway machines, my own homegrown MP3s and even “old-school” CDs.  Playaways are easy-to-use MP3 players that are pre-loaded with just one title.  Since they combine a checkoutable electronic device with a copy of an audio book, they are somewhat expensive.  Most are in the $40 to $80 range, so I can’t purchase too many of them with my budget.  I also create my own homemade Playaways by using donated MP3 players that are loaded with audio that I’ve purchased as an MP3-CD.  This is a time consuming management nightmare, but it provides me with some flexibility.

Since the audio support component of this project is the part of the all-school read that I spend the most time managing and find the least amount of success, I have longed for a digital solution that would allow me to streamline it. I’d like to leverage the fact that many of my students have iPod Touches or even smartphones and are capable of finding a way to a digital copy of the file with some assistance from me.   My dream is to buy several copies of each audio book and then give individual students access to download it.

And this year, Findaway World, the makers of the Playaway, are launching a solution that may meet my needs.  This electronic solution is called Catalist Digital (http://www.catalistdigital.com/).  They are partnering with Follett Library Resources to bring this solution to the school library market.  They also announced in April that they are partnering with Baker and Taylor to serve the public library and retail market.

A user can listen to audio either by streaming it from the Catalist Digital website or by using an app to download it to a device like a smartphone or a tablet.   Apps are available for the iOS as well as the Android market (for Android 2.3 and higher). Once a user has downloaded the app on their device, they can then contact their library and ask for a generic user name and password to access the collection.  Users do not have their own personal login information.

I tested out the Catalist Digital app on my iPhone. Four tabs at the bottom of the screen give the user the opportunity to toggle between my list of downloaded books, the catalog of other audio books to check out and load, account details, and a help screen.  Downloading content into my device appeared to be as quick as downloading content using OverDrive Digital Media.  The controls for playing a book include the opportunity to fast forward and reverse tracks by thirty seconds, as well as skip to the next track.  One can also choose to listen to it in half time or speed it up to double time.  I’m not completely certain how many people would actually go for listening to anything in double time or even as sllllloooowwwwllly as half time, but it was good for a laugh.   Users can also bookmark locations, which could be somewhat useful.  There is a notes feature that users can access from the audio book’s “Details” screen, but this requires users to back up from the play screen in order to access it.  Users can email their notes.  Users can also check the book back in from the details screen.

Catalist’s online interface for students is appealing and intuitive.   I really liked the clean look of the site, as well as the gray and lime green theme.  Audio books that can be streamed immediately are identified by the words “Available Now” below the book’s cover.  If a book has been selected by the user, the words change to “Now Playing.”   Books that are currently being enjoyed by other users are outlined in gray rather than green.  There is a search tool and users can also use a drop-down menu to separate the books into categories.

The same player controls that are available on the device version are available online but it is important to note that the online version only streams the audio.  It isn’t checked out to the user and a user cannot save places or take notes about the audio book.

The frequently asked questions section is as funny as it is useful.  The first question is: “I’m confused. Help!”  This first answer directs the user to check with their librarian because they are “happy to help.” Many of the other answers to the frequently asked questions also end with the same statement, which doesn’t necessarily seem like passing the buck, but more of an affirmation of the importance of librarians in helping users to navigate media.  The student FAQ also notes that this app does not yet work with the Amazon Kindle Fire or the Barnes and Noble Nook but that they are “working on it.”

Librarians have a healthy level of administrative control over how they serve content  to their patrons.  While the Findaway World people feel that the system will work best with one default user name and password for all, librarians can also create multiple generic user names and assign different titles to these user names.  So if a librarian wanted to make certain that only specific titles were available for a particular class or category of patrons, they could create a special user name for that group of individuals.  The control panel also allows a librarian to add specific users to the system.  The audio is first come, first served and there is no way to allow patrons to create holds on titles.  A librarian who wants to make certain that they have enough copies of an audio book would need to purchase multiple copies.

At the time of this review, Follett appeared to have over 2,500 Catalist titles and they are attempting to add over 1,000 new titles every month as the rights to sell the audio are secured.   While many of the currently available items are classics that are in the public domain, new and popular titles are beginning to make their way onto the list like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, and a few titles in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.

Sadly, they don’t yet have my much hoped for copy of Wonder by Palacio but I’m holding out some hope for the near future.

The cost of each title varies but many appear to be around $40.  It seems to be almost a bargain when one compares the cost of a Playaway for the same title is around $67. MARC records are also available that will send users from a library’s catalog to the Catalist Digital site and that specific title, once the user has authenticated with the system.

Why would a librarian choose to build a collection on Catalist Digital over other audio book solutions such as OverDrive Digital Media?  One idea that I have is that there is no yearly subscription or hosting fee.  This is huge for me. Once a book is purchased, there appears to be access to the item without fear of losing access.  I appreciate the opportunity that Catalist Digital will give me to tailor an audio book collection to the specific needs of my users and my curriculum, as well as my annual all-school Reads program, rather than buying into a collection that someone else developed for the age range of my patrons.  I’m also excited about my students’ ability to easily download content onto their personal devices, making a school’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative even more successful.

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.

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