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PLA 2010: Rosy

Submitted by Tom Peters on March 30, 2010 - 8:12am

Portland is the city of roses, and roses already were in bloom during the PLA conference here last week.  The weather was great, with sunny skies and above-normal temps on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Thursday was a tad cool and damp, but, hey, it's Portland.  The food was above-normal, too, with a memorable breakfast at the Doug Fir Lounge on Burnside, a great lunch at the Peemkauw Thai restaurant in the Pearl District, and good microbrews, table scraps, and Texas-sized entertainment at Deschutes.

During my visit to Portland I was focused on digital audiobooks and portable eBooks.  On the audiobook front, Playaway (http://www.playaway.com/) had a huge presence on the exhibit floor.  Their own booth was large and bright, and several other partner vendors had smaller Playaway displays in their own exhibit spaces.  When Playaway was just launching several years ago, I thought it would be a “pony express” phenomenon – a popular but short-lived transitional technology from the old ways (records, tapes, and CDs) to the new ways (downloadable and streaming audio).  Now that small MP3 players are readily available and less expensive than most Playaways with a single audiobook preloaded on it, you would think most people would prefer the reusability and flexibility of a generic portable MP3 player, but Playaway seems to be doing well with more staying power than I originally imagined. 

The lesson here may be to never underestimate the power of the middlers, that is the large middle swath of the population that's very comfortably positioned between the technically adept geeks on one side and the old media mavens on the other.  Evidently Playaway's tag phrase (No Cassettes. No CDs. No Downloads. Just Play.) resonates with many librarians and library users.  Playaway devices are particularly well-suited for the library circulation model, especially now that Playway has been working on the peripheral storage and circulation packaging. 

The portable eBook movement seems to be hitting on all cylinder as well.  A representative from EBSCO, which recently purchased NetLibrary from OCLC (http://www.oclc.org/news/releases/2010/201015.htm), told me that services will continue as is for awhile, then EBSCO probably will improve the user interface and make other enhancements.  Baker & Taylor wasn't touting their Blio Reader service much at PLA, designed in partnership with K-NFB.  K-NFB, in turn, is a partnership between Kurzweil Technologies (yes, as in Ray Kurzweil) and the National Federation for the Blind.  The Blio eBook service (http://www.blioreader.com/) should launch in April, first as a direct-to-reader retail site, with an institutional access option coming later.  OverDrive, the established leader in library vended portable eReading systems and services, continues to develop software and interfaces that make their eBooks, digital audiobooks, music, and videos readable and playable on a wide variety of portable devices.  The initial release of Apple's iPad devices into the wild on April 3rd may or may not radically change the way we think about and use portable eBooks, audiobooks, and other media.  The iPad probably will alter the direct-to-mediaphile market more than it will the institutional market, including libraries, schools, companies, branches of the military, and prisons. 

My compliments to the IT folks at the Oregon Convention Center.  The WiFi access was excellent.  In fact, my PLA experience was my most blended conference experience to date.  In addition to all the in-person happenings, during my 48 hours in Portland I was able to attend an online class session of Jeremy Kemp's and Lori Bell's San Jose State University GSLIS course (we discussed eBooks and audiobooks, of course), an excellent online event about Twitter and libraries organized by the DuPage Library System, my usual Wednesday night hour of service on the Info Quest collaborative text reference service desk, and even an online memorial service for George Buys, the co-founder of Talking Communities, who recently passed away.  By being able to participate both in-person and online in events in a more-or-less seamless fashion, I had a richer, more satisfying conference experience.  Riding around Portland on the light rail trains and the trolleys was a blast, too.