Mothra Versus Skypeasaurus

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

Librarians seem to have an aversion to business as a concept. That is unfortunate. Without business and the taxes derived thereby, how else would libraries exist? It is not as if there is a patron these days like Andrew Carnegie endowing library operations. While dreams may be large, the rocket fuel known as greenbacks keeps so many ships on the ground away from their goals.

A situation where this arises is participation in new media endeavors. The skill sets required for producing in new media are somewhat foreign to the optimal skill sets needed to catalog stacks of materials and answers rapid-fire reference questions. Was it any accident that the producers of the LISNews Netcast Network all happened to have experience in technical theater as well as experience in performance? Those are not skills you pick up in library school and are normally considered within the spectrum of American higher education as not things to pick up initially at the graduate level.

There are free tools, where free is considered as in free beer rather than freedom, that librarians have already used in producing podcasts. One fairly limited tool that allows call-in roundtables is TalkShoe. The service’s quality has gotten worse over time as per my own observation during participation in fan discussions related to Battlestar Galactica. The former program Uncontrolled Vocabulary provided a roundtable for discussing library science issues. The present program T is for Training attempts to provide a similar roundtable focused on training.

A key flaw with TalkShoe is that purportedly uses technology spun off of the conference loop used by NASA flight controllers who direct shuttle missions. The problem with that is that it works great for providing communications and audio that can be recorded for logging. Such logs were important during situations like the proceedings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board where actions of flight controllers had to be reconstructed. For casual listening, the audio’s quality was slightly abrasive and somewhat harsh. TalkShoe uses a similar model of recording without the same required discipline that is exhibited by flight controllers executing mission orders.

TalkShoe also has limitations on simultaneous live participants. The upper limits on participation are not too certain but passing the fifty participant threshold can seriously impair a call’s proceedings. TalkShoe is not a tool used by outfits like CNET or the TWiT Cottage to record programs with remote guests. The Skypeasaurus at the TWiT Cottage is a rig built by their studio manager, Colleen, where six simultaneous Skype feeds are brought in and can be independently mixed using a local physical audio mixer. Having a local mixer with a local operator allows far more fine-tuning of audio quality than the automated system of TalkShoe can provide.

Now, let us turn to practical suggestions for how librarians can surmount these problems. For any single library to have the infrastructure for this in-house would be cost-prohibitive. As the grow of operations at the TWiT Cottage has shown, programs beyond those produced by the TWiT Network are making use of the facilities of the cottage. Having a stable yet reliable hub for bringing in multiple remote guests is apparently quite valuable for diverse group like gdgt and the Gilmor Gang. Translating this into the paradigms of North American librarianship would result in this being an area of activity undertaken by a consortium or a vendor.

The initial startup and construction cost for a consortium to being to provide similar functions to the TWiT Cottage would be immense. At a minimum, the consortium’s base would have to have at least one T-1 leased line, one ISDN line, one cable broadband connection, one ADSL connection as a backup, and a single phone line for somebody to answer. As proven from the growing pains of the TWiT Cottage, various data connections to the outside world are best split over separate pipelines so as to ensure acceptable minimum connection quality. At any fixed location this would also require electrical wiring upgrades to accommodate the increased load from the additional air conditioning that would be required to keep the required hardware operational. A number of computers would have to be procured so that enough possible connections were available via Skype or other VoIP system. Systems for editing would be required. All this would be the case even if no video was involved in production.

The hardest part to this is the matter of securing the funds so that an operating base could be equipped. While such an operation could eventually generate revenue that would allow for self-sufficiency, that would take considerable time. In the present harsh economic climate, merely knowing what is needed does not make it any more likely to become reality. With the tools that are free as in beer not producing appropriate quality output, alternative options are few and far between.


Stephen Michael Kellat received his Master of Science in Library Science from Clarion University of Pennsylvania in 2004. He presently is a librarian in private practice in southern Nevada after having worked in academic cataloging, private sector retail, and alpaca husbandry.

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