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Net Library


Susan Ives is a past president of Alamo PC.

I was telling my friend Doug about the new Net Library program at the public library. He’s an Information Systems Management senior at the UTSA business school, so I figured I had a captive geek audience.

“You know, Doug,” I said, “you can download books for free right onto your computer.”
“Uh-huh,” he replied, not even looking up from the dog-eared copy of Fellowship of the Rings he was reading for the thirteenth time.

“They have hundreds of computer titles, new ones, that are available 24/7,” I added.
“Uh-huh,” he repeated, glancing up this time.

“You can capture completely formatted bibliographic entries and footnotes from any book and paste them right into a word processing document.”
“MLA?” he asked, referring to the Modern Language Association’s style manual that most colleges and universities now use.
“Yes, MLA.”
 He bookmarked his place and leaned forward. 
“Tell me more.”

“They have Cliff's Notes, Doug.”

He flung his book on the floor, leapt up and shoved a piece of paper in front of me. 
“Write it down! Tell me how to get it,” he demanded.

I did. First, sign up for the free service; this is the only step that must be completed in a public library building. Then, go home. You never have to step into a library again. Log into NetLibrary and search the card catalog. Find the book you need. Check it out for 24 hours, and read it either online or offline, using free software. Then do it again. 

Now let’s take that a little bit slower.

Founded in August 1998, netLibrary combines the traditions of the library system with electronic publishing by offering an information and retrieval system for accessing the full text of reference, scholarly, and professional books. The Texas State Library bought access to 18,000 books for patrons of the state’s 505 public libraries. 

To use the system you have to get a user name and password, a virtual netLibrary card. This must be done on an Internet-connected San Antonio Library computer, either at Central or any of the branches. Log onto NetLibrary. There is a “create-an-account” link on the far right of the screen. The libraries set their screen resolution at 600x480, which means that you will have to use the browser’s bottom scroll bar to scroll over to this link. I tell you this because I stared at the screen like an idiot for five minutes before I figured this out. 

They will ask for you name, address, phone number and email address, and you will select a user name, password and a few personal hints in case you forget the password. To my surprise, they do not ask for a library card number. The entire process takes just a few minutes. If you need help, the librarian will happily provide it. Everything else can be accomplished either through a library computer or through your Internet-connected home computer.

Back at home, return to NetLibrary and log in. You will be taken to a search form that lets you search for books by title, author, subject, key words, publisher (this is the only drop-down list), publication year and ISBN. There is also a full-text search. You can list your results by the number of occurrences of your search words, author, title, publisher, or publication year. 

The finding aids are fast and powerful, but I would have liked to be able to browse a list of titles by category. Sometimes I don’t know what I want until I see it. 

netLibrary titles are supposedly integrated into the regular electronic card catalog but I had trouble finding electronic books. The library’s instructions say to type “netlibrary” into the search box, but when I did this it only found 217 titles. I know there are many more. I tried searching for specific titles that I found in the netLibrary but didn’t find them in the SAPL catalogue. This would be a useful feature, to be able to conduct one integrated search instead of having to consult two catalogues.

The available titles lean heavily towards technical, academic and professional books, with quite a few computer titles available. The search engine will only list 100 titles per search, so I can’t tell you how many. Computer books include 56 books published by Que, 49 by O’Reilly, 87 from McGraw-Hill and more than 100 from Sams, to name but a few. There are also many books on medicine, law, business, religion and dozens of university presses. 

Quite frankly, the odds of my branch library, Central Library, or a local bookstore carrying many of these titles are slim. One of the main attractions of this system is the ability to give you 24/7 access to esoteric titles that might take weeks to get through an interlibrary loan. Technical books also go out-of-date quickly. This system guarantees that we have access to the freshest titles. 

You found your book – now what? 

Click on a title, and you get a picture of the book cover and the same kind of basic information you would find in a card catalog. If you’re interested, you have five options.

  • You can bookmark it as a favorite, which records it on a separate list so you can find it again easily.
  • You can send an e-mail to recommend it to a friend.
  • You can briefly browse the book, in full text, without checking it out. This gives you about 15 minutes of access, which is long enough to see if it meets your needs or to answer a quick research question.
  • You can check it out and read it online. The checkout period is 24 hours, and after that time your access to the book will expire and you won’t be able to view it any more unless you check it out again. 
  • You can download the book and read it offline. To do this you have to download free reader software and install it on your computer. Using this method, you can transfer the book to a laptop for portability, or, if you have a dial-up connection, you can read the book without tying up a phone line. Your loan still expires in 24 hours; a utility built into the software makes the book expire until you renew it.
You would think that you could have an infinite number of readers for each book, but under copyright restrictions the Texas State Library had to buy the rights to each copy of each book in use. In most cases, they just bought one use per book, so what if the book you want is checked out by someone else. I’ve never had this happen but it could become an issue as the system becomes more popular.

The offline reader is a 5.6 MB download, and requires Windows 95/98/NT 4.0 or greater, Pentium 100, 32MB RAM, 20MB free disk space. It will not work with WebTV, MacIntosh, or any version of Unix, including Linux.

Let’s look at the reader. The online reader contains an integrated version of the American Heritage Dictionary. You can double-click on a word, get the definition, and often an audio file of the pronunciation. The bookmarking, annotating and citation features I describe below are only available on the offline version. Both formats contain powerful finding tools.

You can make the text larger using the eyeglass icon, growing text so that each letter is about one inch in height, a boon for people with poor eyesight. The book is in the left panel. The top right panel contains a table of contents and the bottom right a list of all of the books you have checked out. You navigate through the book using your mouse and a scrollbar. On the online version, there is a page forward icon that advances the book one page at a time.

 Additional tools are available on the menu bar. You can search the book, insert bookmarks, append sticky notes and highlight in three different colors. If you have more than one eBook installed, you can conduct a search across all of them.

 You can print one page at a time. If you start printing page after page after page, you will be stopped. They don’t want you making a copy of the whole book. You can also cut-and-paste, but there is a limit of 5000 bytes at a time, for the same reason. Graphics can be printed, but not captured for a cut-and-paste operation. 

 Those of you doing academic research will find the automatic citations a big timesaver. Click on “bibliographic citation,” and an entry for the entire book will be copied to your Windows clipboard, ready to be pasted into a word processing application. Click on “cite selected text” and the highlighted text and its citation in proper MLA format will be copied to the clipboard. 

 The book format is a proprietary one, so you cannot transfer the book to a handheld device, such as a Palm, or to a dedicated eBook Reader. I don’t have a Windows CE-based handheld to test it on, but I don’t think it would work with that either. Someone could try. Books vary in size but seem to hover around 700KB. 

 There is a utility to clean expired books from your hard drive, but if you think you might want to refer to a book again you can keep it installed and renew it when you need it to save the download time. 

 There is adequate help, both on the Web site and embedded in the offline reader. 

 I would never want to read a novel using this system, but it is an awesome tool for reference work. It gives us 24 hour a day access to books we might never otherwise get to consult otherwise, at an immense savings to us taxpayers. Katie Enright, a librarian at Central Library, told me in a phone interview that San Antonio is considering purchasing some of its own titles to augment those provided by the State of Texas. I encourage you to try the system and, if you like it, let the library know. 

 Doug’s never going to give up his dog-eared copy of Lord of the Rings, but hey, Cliff's Notes! This ain’t your father’s library.

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