We can cast all we like, but we may not catch any fish

28 February 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not the Annoyed Librarian. But as Kathryn Greenhill suggests, every librarian gets annoyed sometimes, and some things annoy us more than others.

One of my chief irritants is the fad for podcasting.

I’ve never been able to get enthused about podcasts. For starters, podcasting is not a new technology. Like many of the ‘Web 2.0′ concepts, it’s simply an old idea repackaged and then aggressively marketed. Podcasts are just glorified audio files, and we’ve been listening to those for years.

And then there’s the term itself. It’s frankly woeful. It’s believed to have appeared first in a Guardian article in February 2004, suggested as an alternative to ‘audioblogging’ and formed by condensing the words ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’. Yet multimedia search directory ZENcast maintains that it’s actually short for ‘Personal On Demand broadcast’.

Whatever its etymology, ‘podcast’ is ghastly. Since it does away with spaces, it qualifies linguistically as a ‘runtogether‘, but it should never be considered a real word. And it’s not alone. ‘Podcast’ isn’t actually the worst Web 2.0 aberration of the English language — at the moment, I think it’s a tie between ‘vodcast’ and the truly horrible ‘vlogging’.

Libraries seem to be obsessed with podcasts, and I don’t know why. We’re meant to foster equitable access to content, but the use of the proprietary name ‘iPod’ suggests that we’re peddling an expensive Apple product to our users. What about generic mp3 players? Or even no players at all? Since when did libraries prostitute ourselves for a brand name? (Oh, hang on — Thomson, Elsevier, Springer, SirsiDynix — well, I guess I just blew that theory out of the water …)

(‘Katamari Damacy iPod’, from emsef’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Phil Bradley discusses some of the challenges of using podcasts in the library setting in his book How to use Web 2.0 in your library. This is a great all-round book on the rise of emerging technologies in libraries. It’s enthusiastic but not gushy, and Bradley addresses the risk of its content dating quickly by providing an accompanying website. We have a copy of the book in our collection, but I’m afraid you can’t have it at the moment as it’s sitting on my desk.

Bradley argues that podcasts have become universally popular because of their convenience. Users can listen to them on a PC while they’re working, or download them to mp3 players to enjoy at their leisure. I worry that part of the reason libraries have been so quick on the uptake is that yet again, podcasting is considered a cheap option because it can be practised and maintained in-house. The only essential piece of equipment for recording is a microphone, which often comes as part of a PC’s initial package. Add to this one of the best audio manipulation software packages on the market (which just happens to be a free, open source download), and you have a very cheap tool for promoting the library if someone with the necessary technical knowledge is prepared to donate time to the task.

I’m wary of the notion of library budgets driving library services. It’s fine to want to employ our users’ tools to help them access the library, but if we want a half-decent information service we need to maintain a high standard of professionalism. We also need to be prepared to spend money. Many people from overseas find the Australian accent impenetrable; given that our international student numbers are already sizeable, and we’re hoping to lift them to about a third of the student body over the next few years, we need to ensure that we’re not developing services they’ll find utterly inaccessible. There’s a strong argument for hiring professional voiceover artists to read our scripts. After all, we run theatre studies courses here; I bet there are plenty of students who’d jump at the chance for some work experience before they graduate. And on that basis, it wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg.

There is also the ongoing issue of accessibility. Audio recordings are offensively exclusionary to anyone with a hearing impairment, and they are also less than appealing to students with a limited grasp of the language. All students, regardless of their ability to interpret spoken English, will tell you that listening to a lecture online is not the easiest way to absorb information — it’s too easy to become distracted and disengaged. We need to be careful that the reasons we choose to utilise new technologies are the right ones; many libraries are guilty of desperately clutching at whatever faddish Web 2.0 tools come their way in the hope that users will find their services relevant and fun. We need to be careful that we’re still driving the technology, and that it’s not the other way around.

Of course, there are applicable uses for podcasting in academic libraries. Visitors to the National Gallery of Victoria can hire audio guides to help them make the most of the Gallery’s collection. Why don’t we do the same? As Tony suggested at a forum on international student needs, a walk-around audio orientation is a wonderful tool for students who can’t or don’t want to attend conventional library tours at the start of semester. We keep being told that our ‘net generation’ users have a short attention span and are fond of discovering new things for themselves – well, this is a much more interactive way for them to familiarise themselves with our resources. There are plenty of students who choose to spend their first few weeks on campus socialising, rather than learning about our services. That’s fine, and actually extremely valuable. But we should ensure that we’re ready and waiting for them later in the semester when they need the library, and that we meet them with whatever resource they find helpful and accessible – not just a gimmick.

Blogger’s note:
If you really must listen to a podcast, you may be interested in this interview with Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian writer, and author of Year of wonders, March and People of the Book. I’ve always found Year of Wonders remarkably similar to a (much older) British children’s book, A parcel of patterns, but then they’re based on the same historical event so I suppose that explains it. After all, there’s no such thing as plagiarism in fiction — only homage.

I found the interview by running an exclusive audio search on the EveryZing search engine. EveryZing has a built-in multimedia player, so users can search for a podcast, click on the result that interests them and listen to the audio directly through the EveryZing website. From the player, users are also given a number of other options, such as downloading the audio, subscribing to the podcast series, copying custom HTML code to a website, or rating the podcast on digg, del.icio.us and other popular website sharing services.