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I was saddened to hear the news of the death of Anne McCaffrey. She’s one of the authors I grew up with, and last night (no doubt along with many others) I reached for ‘Dragonflight’ to begin a memorial re-read.

I did the same earlier this year, following the death of Diana Wynne Jones. I re-read many favourites, and discovered some of her books for the first time. As part of this, I read ‘Archer’s Goon’ for (what I thought was) the first time.

It wasn’t the first time. I’d forgotten almost everything about the book, but the names prompted some stirrings in the back of my memory, little snippets of deja-lu. The line ‘Dillian farms law and order’ hit me like a punch to the gut. Of course she did. She couldn’t possibly do anything else. I knew this; I’d always known it.

I’ve re-read many half (or totally) forgotten books before, but I’d never had such a visceral, physical reaction. The whole book was like a series of body-blows. It was exhausting and exhilerating, and all the while things hung at the back of my mind, emerging fully-formed a page or two before the denouement in the text.

So I searched my shelves, expecting to find a battered old copy tucked away. I found it quite odd that I could remember nothing about the physicality of the book – no memory of cover art, or spine on my neatly alphabetised shelves. It must have been a library book.

But how will I know? I envy the current and future generations of library users. They can electronically access their borrowing record. They can see (or will be able to see) what they were reading when they were 7, 8, 9, 19, 29. They can jog their memory, or escape into the past.

Catalogue permitting, anyway… I’ve just checked my borrowing history on the Manchester Libraries catalogue. After all, they’ve been online for a while – surely I can go back a few years down memory lane, at least? Not so! I can go back a year at most, and there’s only a list of loans and reservations. No loan dates. Manchester Uni is much better – I can see my loans going right back to when my card was issued in 2006, and see issue and return dates for all items. So why not for Manchester Libraries? They must have the data – why aren’t they letting me use it? It’s my data.

We talk about making the most of the data that we have, but we also have to remember to allow users to make the most of it, too. For nearly three years, I’ve been recording every book I read (I predict 2 reactions to this: ‘that’s so sad!’ and ‘hey, I’ve been doing that for years!’), and I’d love to use my library data to help me go back further, and fill in some of the gaps. I want my library to help me record and celebrate my love of reading.

And boy, do I love reading. There’s that phrase which chases us around the libinfosphere, a variant on:

‘You don’t become a librarian because you like books.’

Well, actually, many of us do. Let’s be more accurate:

‘You don’t become a good librarian because you just like books.’

You become -and stay – a good librarian by liking other things, too. You like people; computers; metadata; gin. You have a passion for teaching or research. You see the void which exists between a person and the information they need, and you have to fill it.

Sometimes, that void is filled by books. Sometimes it’s filled by information about books. Don’t put barriers in the way of either of them. Don’t make future generations crawl around in the electronic equivalent of a dusty old storage room, hunting through obsolete data formats. Don’t make them have to put in a request.

I have a vision, my friends. A vision of a future in which no-one will have to wonder when they first read ‘Archer’s Goon’. And we can make it happen.

So, Manchester Public Libraries now offer ebooks and audiobooks for download. How excited am I? Well, I read two in the first 48 hours, and have been on the site pretty much every night since, so yeah, I’m pretty gosh-durn happy πŸ™‚

The problem? (you know there has to be a problem, or this would be a short & pointless blog post.) The problem is that the books are in Adobe EPUB format and, as I’ve said before, they will give you a headache. More than a headache: I read a lot of ebooks, and am used to reading on screen for 4-5 hours at a time; with EPUB it’s more like an hour before my eyes feel like they’re bleeding.

So why are EPUB so bad? Well, it’s not just EPUB. Basically, not all ebook readers are created equal. (I should point out here that I’m talking about ebook readers for the PC – not standalone devices.) Some will allow you to do much more with the appearance and format of your document that others, and in this case, the more flexibility the better. EPUB happens to be one of the ones that allows you to do, well, little.

I have 6 ebook readers installed on my PC: Mobipocket reader and Mobipocket reader pc; Microsoft Reader; Adobe digital editions; Amazon Kindle for pc; and Sony reader. Which do I prefer? Frankly, none of them.

Wherever I can, I read ebooks in microsoft word, which is – obviously – brilliantly customisable. You can change everything about the text, get the size and the colours just right for your eyes. Full-screen reading mode with the black/silver office theme is very easy on the eye. I have my background black, my text sans-serif, at least 20 point, and very light gray. When I can’t use word? Mobipocket reader is the next best, as you can easily change background and text colours and text size.

Unfortunately, with most DRMd ebooks, you won’t have that choice – you have to read in whatever format the book has been published. So what can you do to make your reading experience as easy on your eyes as possible?

  1. Download different readers, and try them out. All of the readers I have are free to download, and they usually come with at least one free classic text, so you can try out a few pages and see how the reader works for you.
  2. Try different setting within the reader – what you’re aiming for is as little light/glare coming off the screen as possible. If you can’t adjust the colour or brightness within the reader, alter your computer/monitor settings
  3. Have big text. When you open most ebooks, the text will be set at ‘medium’. Turn it up – you need much bigger text on screen that in a book (partly because you’re further away). This will mean less text on each page and more page turning, so…
  4. Figure out the various ways you can turn pages within the program. Does it have to be mouse wheel down? A click? A click in a specific part of the screen? Arrow keys? Most programs will have at least a couple of options. I use arrow keys if I’m leaning forward, mouse wheel if I’m sitting back. General rule: the less movement you have to make, the better, as you’ll be doing it a lot!
  5. Don’t be tempted into full-screen mode, either. Yes, it looks very impressive, and no, you won’t have to turn the page as often, but it’s very hard on the eye. What works best – unsurprisingly! – is a line length approximately the same to that in a printed book. It’s a length your eyes are used to, and they won’t get lost part-way along. Again, try out slightly different window sizes/shapes until you find a good fit for you.
  6. Take breaks! Yes, I know we’re all fully aware that we should take screen breaks, but somehow it is that much harder when you’re trying to find out whodunnit than when you’re collating stats or writing a report. Even looking to the other end of the room for 30 seconds at the end of each chapter will really help to rest your eyes.

This is fairly basic advice, and probably just seems like common sense if you’re used to reading ebooks. But what if you’re not? Many of your users may never have read an ebook before they borrow one from the library – why not give them some advice about getting the best reading experience from their ebook? Tailor it to the formats you have available, and show your users that you don’t have to squint at a bright screen filled with tiny black writing. As well as saving some eye strain, it might even increase takeup of ebooks. While much of this information will be available on the software websites, we should be delivering it to them, rather than making them go out and find it for themselves.

I’ve seen library sites that explain that you *can* change font size etc, but not saying *why* you should. Is anyone doing this? I’d love to know!

With 2 hours to go of this working year, and my inbox down to zero (mainly due to the creation of a ‘random’ folder), I decided to resurrect this rather old reading habits meme, as previously done by woodsiegirl, jaffne, joeyanne, stupidgirl_no1, ioverlord, and – of course! – infobunny. And probably others I have missed (sorry).

(2 queries arise from that paragraph: am I odd for naturally referring to people by their twitter usernames? probably. did I just link to all those posts just to get more visitors? of course not! perish the thought)

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?

Let’s get this out there to start with: I read a lot. I appreciate that this isn’t going to particularly set me aside in this company, but it does mean that if I didn’t snack while reading, I would probably die of malnourishment. I eat whole meals while reading. Favourite reading food? Anything that can be eaten with one hand.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

Horrify? no. I did this when I was younger, but haven’t done for years, mainly because I have no need to. Writing in a book you own, that isn’t rare/unique etc is fine by me. As long as it’s done in pencil! Pen in books does horrify me. Dunno why.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

Bookmarks! but not yer proper fancy bookmarks, all with pictures on and everything. I’ll use anything that comes to hand – preferably paper, but have been known to use photos, rulers, random bits of plastic. Train tickets work well, but I have a nasty habit of leaving them in the book when I need them to get off the platform *sigh*

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?

Fiction all the way! I do read occasional bits of non-fiction, but they tend to be quite narrative-based.

Hard copy or audiobooks?

Generally hard copy. I will sometimes listen to audiobooks (especially if the reader is someone appealing), but it takes me much longer to listen to a book than read it, and I’d generally much rather just get on with the story!

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?

Actually, I’m the sort of person who tends to read to the end of books! If I’m really into a book, you just can’t prise me away from it. This has led to me having to impose restrictions on my in-bed reading – poetry, short stories/essays, or novels only if they’re not plot-driven. Wodehouse is great for that. Other fave night-time authors are O Henry, James Thurber, John Donne, Alan Coren, E B White, Stephen Fry, Ring Lardner. If I try reading something with a strong plot, I never get any sleep 😦

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?

If I can’t figure it out from context, and have OED access at hand, then yes. I likes words πŸ™‚

What are you currently reading?

Horror of horrors, I’m actually between books at the moment! Day-time books anyway, my current bed book is Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Recent books have included the new Stephen King, General Bramble by Andre Maurois, and an old favourite, Joan Aitken’s Midnight is a Place. I think this is going to be next, when the partying finally stops and I’m sober enough to focus πŸ˜‰

What is the last book you bought?

Loads for christmas presents. I’ve actually been buying myself quite a few new books recently. This is normally taboo, as it would cost me a bloody fortune to keep myself in new books, so it’s generally library and charity shops all the way. I love charity book-shopping! The thrill of the unknown!

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?

More than one, often. I tend to finish books very quickly (my goal for this year has been a book a day, and I’m currently at 1.045! hurrah!), and so I find I can switch without getting too confused. I’ll switch books if I need a handbag sized book for a bus journey etc.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?

Anywhere. Anytime. My sofa is probably the comfiest, but I’m happy reading under almost any circumstances!

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?

Series books! There are more of them πŸ™‚ And I can get a bit obsessive about reading them in order as well – no spoilers for me!

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?

Depends. I’ll receommend different things to different people, but I do have some staples that absolutely everyone should read: Catcher in the Rye; and Diary of a Provincial Lady.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)

Roughly alphabetically by author’s last name (all the A’s together etc), with works by the same author grouped, and series books in order. This only holds true for the main collection – I have sub-collections in other rooms that are much more higgeldy-piggeldy (ie kid’s lit in the spare room; old-style Penguins downstairs looking decorative).

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