I spend most of my time in front of a computer, which means I spend a large part of my day wearing headphones. Much of what i listen to is music of course, but a few years ago I started listening to podcasts to get my entertainment fix. Eventually that lead to an appetite for Audiobooks to listen to while I’m drawing or spending long spells working in Photoshop. For me, it’s a great way to stay up to date or to learn new things while working or doing chores around the house. I know that Audiobooks are also quite popular for those who spend lots of time driving or working in the garage, and they’re great for any time you’re working with your hands, but would like to take in a story.
Most libraries offer Audiobooks on CD for checkout. Some charge a small rental fee, and you’re limited to what you find on the shelf, or what is within reach of the library’s lending network. Despite listening to plenty of Audiobooks, I’ve checked out exactly zero of them from the library. If you’ve lifted one off the shelf lately, you no doubt noticed the size and weight of the thing. If you’re planning to walkabout town listening to a tome like the unabridged audio version of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” be sure to bring a backpack so you’re prepared to carry the boxed set of fifteen full length CDs. Include in your load a discman and a quiver of batteries, and you’ll soon be toting around a few kilos. You’ll probably find the hard cover version to be more portable. This seems ridiculous when you consider that even a long book like Friedman’s can be represented by about 300MB of data, which would fit 10 times over on a memory card small enough to swallow.
I haven’t bought a CD in years, nor have I any idea where I might find my antique discman, so what I really want to do is get Audiobooks the same way I get podcasts and music: by downloading them from the web and syncing them onto my iPod or any device that plays MP3s. While podcasts are generally free, Audiobooks delivered digitally can be quite dear. I’ve used services like Audible.com, where you can download an Audiobook for between US$7 and US$27. Audible has a subscription scheme where you can buy credits at a discount, but if you really love to listen you can easily go through an Audiobook in a few days, leaving you to wait for your credits to arrive at the beginning of the month, or just leaving you to pay full price. The system works well, but your Audiobook habit can quickly become more expensive than Sky TV or your internet connection itself, especially when you consider that few people plan to listen to an Audiobook more than once.
That’s why I was very excited to learn that the Christchurch City Library now has an OverDrive Audiobook Collection. If you’re not familiar with the system, it’s pretty straightforward. You go to your library’s website, and click through to their OverDrive portal. There you can browse the collection and download what you like, sync to your iPod or MP3 player, or even burn it to the aforementioned mountain of CDs.
To get started you’ll need to download OverDrive Media Console. OverDrive uses a proprietary player, which is necessary to manage and enforce the lending period, as that kind of functionality isn’t built into any of the media players you may already have installed, such as Windows Media Player or iTunes. Once that’s ready, you can log into the catalogue with your library card and have a look through the available titles. If you see something you like, and it’s available, you can simply add it to your basket and click checkout, just as you would when buying anything online, except you’ll be asked to log in with your library card and pin. After checkout you’ll be prompted to download a file. This file is not actually your media, but a .odm file. Think of it as the ticket for your media files. Once downloaded, simply open this file with OverDrive Media Console, and the program will begin to download the Audiobook media. The media is broken into many parts, and you can begin listening as soon as the first part is downloaded. In most cases, you have a fortnight to listen to the title. When your time is expired, the title will be “returned” to the library, meaning it will be removed from your computer, whether you’re finished or not.
If your title is not available, you can place a hold on it, and you’ll be notified by email when the title becomes available. You’ll have a few days to check it out before it’s goes to the next person waiting on the list.
The system does have a few drawbacks. As a Windows Media Player-based solution, most titles are only available as Windows Media Audio (.wma) format files, which only playback on Windows PC’s. Those with Mac’s can use OverDrive’s new Media Console for Mac, but due to publishers’ restrictions, Mac users will have less titles to chose from. You can sync most of the .wma format files to a Windows Mobile-based phone, but not all titles are available to sync onto your iPod, and fewer are available to sync onto a non-iPod MP3 player or burned to a CD, which limits the usefulness for those of us that like to listen to an Audiobook for those long drives in the car. It should also be noted that if the catalogue indicates that the title is available for iPod, but not for Mac, that means you can use it only on an iPod formatted for a PC, so you won’t be able to use your Mac-format iPod as a workaround for lack of support on your Mac computer. The array of restrictions and caveats probably says more about the state of the publishing industry, and less about the OverDrive system or your library, but it’s something to be aware of before you check out an Audiobook, and it’s a mute point if you plan to listen on your Windows PC. Fortunately the OverDrive catalogue makes it as easy as possible to navigate the restrictions. Each title in the catalogue has a key of icons, indicating which titles are available for which platforms, so that you can see at a glance whether or not your title will be available for your needs.
Overall it’s a wonderful and modern use of the library’s classic mission, and a welcome addition to Christchurch City Libraries.