Writing a new chapter in the book of technology

Library checks out using MP3 players for audio book lovers

August 06, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

For audio book lovers, technological advances are making those cumbersome boxes of cassettes a relic. Now, books can be heard through devices no bigger than a deck of cards - and Carroll County public libraries are the first in Maryland to have them.

"What boggles my mind is the amount of information that can be stored on something so small," said Kris Peters, a librarian at the county's North Carroll branch who was among the first to test digital audio books on an MP3 player.

The county's five branches have been testing the waters with the new MP3 players - which can play up to 26 hours of the spoken word - since June.

Keenly aware of the popularity of audio books, libraries across the state are watching to see if the concept clicks in Carroll.

"We're very interested in seeing what Carroll County's experience is, to see how it works - if there are any glitches," said Susan K. Schmidt, head of materials management for Anne Arundel County's libraries. "The appeal of the format is strong. It has a lot of potential."

MP3 technology compresses hours' worth of reading (and tapes) into a data stream that fits neatly into a digital file, which can be heard through a small, portable player.

Carroll County libraries will lend devices to those who don't have them.

Patrons will receive a black case that houses a Diamond Rio 500 MP3 player, a pair of gigantic headphones, a cassette converter and an extra battery - all for free. The equipment also lists the costs of each component. The library wants users to handle the device with care.

Time-pressed readers can choose up to four titles (26 hours) from a list of about 50 books that includes bestsellers such as The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Selections are downloaded from a specific terminal. Only two copies of a title are allowed out at a time. A pie chart tracks how much time is available in each player's 64-megabyte memory.

The response in Carroll - where more than 20,000 books on tape and CDs are in circulation - has been overwhelming. Library officials said the MP3 players - four at each branch - are grabbed as quickly as they're returned. The library plans to add 10 digital audio books a month to its collection.

The response "has surprised us," said James Jenkins, a Carroll library spokesman. "People don't usually embrace technology that easily. We were expecting a lag period."

Avid audio book fans see the potential for MP3 use.

"I'd be willing to give it a try. I don't need to be dragged across the bridge kicking and screaming to the 21st century," said Genie Corbin, a Finksburg resident who checked out several audio books from the Westminster library one recent morning and was unaware of the availability of digital audio books.

Like other audio book lovers, Corbin has upgraded her reading habits - albeit slowly - in step with technology. "I bought a CD player only three years ago. Some of the books I had to have were on CD," she said.

The MP3 also interests Mike Pugh, an assistant pastor at Westminster's New Life Chapel, who said he could compress the 12 tapes that make up his audio Bible into one file.

"You can do a lot while listening to these books - get ready in the morning for work, drive, prepare sermons," he said.

Although North Carroll's Peters is not an audio book user by nature - she said she gets too focused on what's being read and doesn't pay enough attention to the road - she does know how the trend of the moment can turn into a permanent fixture at the library.

She said she noticed that when CD players became standard in new cars, the demand for audio books on CDs went up as well.

Peters likes certain aspects of the MP3 device - it's easy to use and readers can pick up exactly where they left off. It also packs a lot of information into a compact format. But she did have criticism.

The device's small size could prove to be tricky for tired eyes and the controls too small for some hands. The player also drains batteries quickly.

She advises listeners who expect a higher level of sound quality to set their standards lower - not all of them have the clarity of CDs.

Still, digital audio books are likely to be a fixture at Carroll's libraries - which leads the state in per capita library usage - where patrons are always on the lookout for innovations.

"Here in Carroll County, we try to stay ahead of the curve," Jenkins said. "We have some faithful patrons who aren't afraid to try new things."

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