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This is the third post in my new Sarah’s Gadget Showcase series. #1 (Audio Gadgets) and #2 (Cooking & Food Gadgets) are also available.

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I started reading at the age of three and haven’t stopped since.  I find power in words, solace in them, pain, despair, joy, inspiration, but most importantly, I find life in words.

I am, believe it or not, traditionally a bookish sort.  I started library school wanting to be a rare books librarian, actually, which is kind of funny when you think about what I do now (high tech and futurist trends are pretty much the polar opposite of old, decaying, dusty books).  Of course, my focus in rare books librarianship was on digitization of the materials for open and free dissemination on this relatively new thing they had back then called “the internet.”  So I guess even then the techie bug had bitten me.  But it was, and is, all about the information not the technology that carries it.

There is a weight to a physical book, and I don’t mean a physical heft.  Books have a meaning, a significance in our culture.  They hold untold promises and infinite possibilities. Books are objects of art.  Carrying or owning books implies that you’re intelligent.  Books = good things.

And for all of the years that I’ve been talking about digital libraries, using technology to improve yourself and your community, and even about eBooks specifically…I privately hated eBooks.  I hated the technology that locked them down, I hated how they worked (or rather didn’t), I hated the thought of reading on a screen, just…hated…them.  I clung to my printed books.  I did not advertise this little love-hate relationship with the eBook; only a few people close to me ever knew.

And then (as is wont to happen) the technology got better and I had to eat my own words.  The consumer-level experience of finding and obtaining an eBook got better (sadly, the library eBook experience is still pretty crap).  E Ink was invented and revolutionized the eReading experience entirely. E Ink is the screen technology that makes the Kindle and other devices work–ultra low power consumption, high resolution, and not back-lit. I don’t know about you, but after reading a lit computer screen all day, I honestly do not think my eyes can stand staring at another one for pleasure.

There is a lot that is still jacked up about the digital reading experience. Don’t get me started on digital rights management or we’ll be here all day and you’ll leave with bleeding ears.  But there are some things that work just fine, at least for me.  Most of these aren’t hardware gadgets per se, but apps/software/services.  So how do I read digitally? Let me count the ways…

The Kindle (& its bouquet of assorted hacks)

Yes, I own a Kindle. And I love it. Hate me later library purists; listen to me now.  The E Ink display is fabulous. The reading interface is good, annotating works, sharing passages is nice, battery life is remarkable…it’s all good.  And you can hack it.  Read on.

To me, the Kindle is like a seductive box of dark chocolates: a tasty, wonderful, yet guilty pleasure that I know I shouldn’t indulge in but want so badly.  I am confident there is something amazing in there to be had; I just have to find a gentle and creative way around existing obstacles (in the case of chocolates, my guilt at eating an entire box in one sitting).  And just as with those very few guilty pleasures that I have desired and couldn’t have right away, I’ve been pretty persistent in trying to get what I want with the Kindle.  I am patient and I try to figure out a way to make things work for me even if at first blush it doesn’t look promising.  My instincts are generally good and I usually end up being right and getting what I want.  Just ask my Kindle.

As you may know, the Kindle is a closed ecosystem and you only “license” books from Amazon–you don’t own them as you would with a printed book (same w/ other eBook vendors too).  Rejecting these principles as complete and utter bullshit, I hacked my Kindle.  I absolutely hate that the Kindle is a locked down system, a completely isolated bubble of content and delivery mechanism (just like the iPad and iPhone ecosystems, which I shun on principle b/c I can’t hack them…yet).  Locking down information goes against everything I stand for as a librarian.  Let me be clear: I do not do anything illegal on my Kindle, other than the hacking itself (which is a grey area, imho, even if you adhere to the DMCA to the letter).  I’m not stealing books or giving away books.  I hacked my Kindle so I could do with my device what I want with the books I paid to “license,” when I want, and in what format I want.  And that is the right of every reader, dammit.

“Hack the Kindle?” you ask.  ”Do tell!”  All righty then.  Without getting myself into any more legal difficulties, here are some fabulous resources to get you started on hacking your Kindle into the dirt.  Share these with your co-workers, family members, and (if you’re braver than I am) with your library users.

And for the nerds, a detailed series of posts from an anonymous hacker on the ins and outs of some of the hacks.

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Kindle app on Android
The Kindle app for Android is great.  As long as you have wi-fi enabled on your actual Kindle device, your bookmarked spot is synced up automatically.  I prefer not to read on the small, back-lit screen of my phone (an HTC Thunderbolt), but there are cases when it comes in handy.  Case in point #1: Standing in line at the grocery store.  Instead of being angry and wanting to stab the person in front of me, I whip out my phone and start reading my book.  Case in point #2: In a darkened airplane cabin where turning on the light above you to read might result in you getting stabbed by your seat mate.  You get the idea.  Small screen reading prevents homicides.

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Google Reader
I do a lot of my reading online still–usually on my laptop at home, or my desktop at work.  I’m generally reading blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc. that I find through Google Reader, an RSS aggregator that has stood the test of time and continues to work.  I love the folder system, the interface, the speed, and the app for Android is great.

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Book Sharing
I use both LibraryThing and GoodReads.  I am a member of a science fiction book club on GoodReads, which has me going back there more than to LibraryThing.  I wish I actually remembered to update one or both sites with all the books I’ve been reading.  Anyone have a good trick for that?  Or is it just sheer willpower that I lack?

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Book Discovery

Scout’s honor, I actually do use NoveList to find new books if I’m looking for something in a particular genre.  NoveList is an online resource that many public libraries subscribe to, and I’m glad mine does.  It is a-w-e-s-o-m-e.  From the first time I tried NoveList years ago, it has always made me happy and gives me good recommendations.  Tell it what authors you like, or a book you like, or just keywords you want to read about.  Boom!  Book recommendations.  And I love using it with family members, non-library-world friends, or library users and showing them how to browse around.   You can get lost in there for hours following thread after thread and finding more and more books to put on your “to read” list.  The K-8 version is great for kids too.  I actually found a long-lost-childhood-favorite-book using NoveList after every other method had failed–describing the book to long-time children’s librarians, searching by keywords on search engines and other book sites, no dice.  Love it.
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What do you use?

What do you use to read, to share, to transport, to revel in your bookish nerdiness?  Share with us!

“Sarah’s Gadget Showcase, Part 3 (Reading Gadgets)”

  1. Jimmy the Geek Says:

    Hi Sarah! I’ve just recently started playing with the OverDrive Media Console (OMC) on my Android phone. As you know OverDrive Media is a big player in the eBooks for Libraries world, and is the providing partner for the Kentucky Libraries Unbound program. I never thought I’d like to read a book on my phone, a SonyEricsson Xperia X10, but the OMC makes it quite enjoyable. The text is large enough to be comfortably readable, the pages turn at the swipe or tap.

    However, since the eBook was in PDF format, the pictures often took the entire screen, or included bits of the next picture(s) in the case of groups. But I knew going in that PDFs were horrible as an eBook format, as a PDF is more or less a picture of a page that won’t scale properly on most devices.

    Anyway, thanks for this technological tour de force!

  2. Kristen McCallum Says:

    Hi Sarah. I’ve tried LibraryThing, GoodReads and WeRead but never found one that really worked for me. I discovered Google’s My Library about a year or so ago (almost by accident) and have been using it to track of books I want to read and create shelves for genres, etc. Since I’m pretty much signed in to Google all day, it’s really easy to add a book to a bookshelf with a few clicks. It works great for tracking my own reading and for reader’s advisory, but the downside is that it’s not as “social” as the other sites. I was able to export titles from Google’s My Library and add them to Library Thing without a problem, however. I do hope Google continues to develop their My Library feature. It’s a handy tool, but there is definitely room for improvement.

  3. darren mitchell Says:

    If Amazon comes after you (which they would be stupid to do–you’re a librarian), I will stand by your side and rush into battle with you. Down with corporate bullshit!

  4. Brad Wirz Says:

    That seals it… I’m officially adding a Kindle to my Christmas Wishlist. I wan’t a device that’s optimized for reading… Not something that works ok for reading, but also does a bunch of other things. Thanks for posting!

  5. Julian Gautier Says:

    As soon as you started talking about hacking your Kindle, I thought “That’s it. I’m *posting* this list in my library.” Then you made me think twice about it… However, Apple eventually came to its senses with iTunes’s mp3s, which made me feel better about all those years I spent talking to patrons about simple DRM stripping techniques.

    I use Google Reader for a lot of magazine and blog reading, and reading about new books with Amazon’s RSS feeds. I like goodreads, especially for socializing and discovery, and a very active “What’s the Name of That Book” group. My library has Gale’s Books and Authors, which is a lot like Ebscohost’s Novelist.

  6. Sarah Hartman Says:

    I’ve been pretty good about adding books I’m reading to my GoodReads list since getting the Android app that lets me just scan the ISBN off the cover. My phone is almost always with me (I am using it to write this). Unfortunately I can’t do that with eBooks and need to make an effort to remember to add them. I have a Nook, Sony Reader (older Pocket model for travel), and various Android apps–Kindle, Nook, Kobo, OverDrive. I prefer eBooks, but I still get most of my books in print form from the library because it’s free and our OverDrive selection is limited.

  7. Jane Says:

    I love my Kindle, too, and the Android Kindle app. My beef with the Kindle app is that it doesn’t save my place! If I switch from reading on the Kindle, and then go to read on my Droid, I have to find my spot again via the index, or, heaven forbid, scrolllllll through my phone. Boo!
    Some of my coworkers have been a little aghast when I tell them how much I love my Kindle, thinking that it’s a betrayal to libraries. But I mostly use it for books I know I will reread (Hunger Games Trilogy, anyone?) or for traveling. And the games!

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  10. Renaldo Says:

    I personally have no problem with Kindle’s or iTunes “closed” ecosystems, for me it would be like complaining about the “closed” nature of the Milky Way: yes, they’re all closed, or circumscribed, but they’re plenty big enough for my mortal tastes, and I do appreciate the relatively calm law and order that exists in them (as opposed to, say, the hackneyed world of Windows or Android). My iTunes account is almost ten years old, and it has done good service in providing access to a universe of music, video, and bibliographic works, and in allowing me to manage them in a powerfully elegant way.

    The key criteria, in making a decision regarding any platform, is whether there’s elegance in design and quality in content, and this includes libraries in general. As a prominent scholar wrote at the beginning of the digital library era, ‘I want libraries to filter, weed, and identify the best literature in my field, and not to deluge me with *everything*. The same is true with Kindle and iTunes. I purchased my first ebook over ten years ago; I still have it, along with countless hundreds of others (perhaps, now, 1000s, I haven’t counted for a while). I can’t use the same ereader app for all of them, but they are all on my iPad, accessible with a couple of button clicks. My only serious complaint is that the Kindle software is still primitive as a bibliographic management tool.

  11. Sarah Says:

    The Kindle app should be saving your place. Let me see your Kindle the next time we see each other and I’ll see what’s what. I think there’s a sync setting that might be off.

  12. Matt Says:

    “But it was, and is, all about the information not the technology that carries it.”

    Profound.

    I could rant for hours about digital rights, and end user agreements that we all agree to, but for now, that shall suffice.

  13. Kid Computers Says:

    Sarah, great article! I am actually trying to get word out of a special library computer that I’m creating, you could call it a “gadget”. I would love for you to possibly review it!

  14. Alison Says:

    “As you may know, the Kindle is a closed ecosystem and you only “license” books from Amazon–you don’t own them as you would with a printed book (same w/ other eBook vendors too). ”
    I don’t know if you are aware of this, but you can buy books from some publishers (like Baen) that are DRM free and will work on the Kindle. And I feel that you “own” these books because you can save a copy for backup!

  15. Carla Says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Sarah. I’ve been wanting to buy a kindle for ages, but was put off by Amazon’s stupid DRM restrictions. Being restricted to buying from only one ‘book shop’ is just ridiculous. Now, thanks to your post, I’ve gone and bought a kindle, which hopefully will arrive here in Australia next week. Am obsessively checking the DHL website to see where it is – currently it’s in Hong Kong. I do love gadgets :)

  16. Mary Says:

    You mentioned an Android Phone, Did you know that LibraryThing has a barcode scanner app? You scan the barcode of a book you are interested in and add it to your want to read list or list of books you have already read. Makes updates faster and easier.

  17. Eric Says:

    I’m comment happy!

    I got into the library world wanting to be a rare books librarian as well! Funny coincidence. I had been working at a public library back in 2001, and I read an interview with a band I like called Unto Ashes, and the singer is a rare books librarian. I had no idea at that point that a career could be made out of being a librarian.

    And now I’m a technology librarian. Strange how things turned out.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who followed that quirky path :)

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