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Academic Tech: Digital Library

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My academic friends and colleagues regularly ask me for technical advice and support. “Hey, you seem like a techie guy, so I’ll ask you: how do I [your question here]?” I am not sure whether I qualify to give this kind of advice, but I am happy to tell people how I would find a solution. This will be the first in a series of posts about how I use technology to improve my academic life. Today’s post: the digital library.

The Basics

If you are thinking about creating or organizing a digital library, then I recommend thinking about 6 things:

    1. Where will you be accessing your digital library?
    2. Who will be accessing your library?
    3. On what device(s) or apps will you be accessing your digital library?
    4. About how large will your digital library be?
    5. How often will you need to cite works in this library?
    6. How bad would it be if you lost your digital library?

In what remains, I’ll address each of these questions and show how your digital needs will depend on your answers to these questions. The result will be a sort of guide that is tailored to your answers to these basic questions.

1: Where will you be accessing your digital library?

At home? At work? Both? Everywhere? If you think that you will want access to your digital library in more than one location, then you should probably consider keeping your library in cloud storage (as opposed to storing it on your own device). By storing your library in the cloud, you maintain the ability to access it from any computer with access to the internet—i.e., pretty much all computers and smartphones.

Many people already have cloud storage without realizing it. For example, if you have a Gmail email address, then you probably have 5 to 15 gigabytes of cloud storage at your disposal—Gmail users can log in at drive.google.com to check it out. Other popular and easy-to-use cloud storage services include:

Dropbox (2 gigabytes free)

Box (10 gigabytes free)

Copy (15 gigabytes free) — discontinued service

MediaFire (50 gigabytes free)

2: Who will be accessing your library?

Answer: whoever owns the books in the library. This might seem like a platitude, so I will have to say a bit more. I want to address copyright stuff. I am not a lawyer, but I imagine that sharing books poses a legal problem. So, you should be careful about how you store your digital library. The most important thing to do is to make sure that others cannot access your digital library. So, if you are using Dropbox, then make sure that your library is not in the “public” folder—and do not share a link to the library! If you are storing your library locally on your device’s hard drive, then you are probably less vulnerable. Still, you will want to consider protecting the library somehow. One way to do this is to protect your computer’s contents with a password; every standard operating system allows one to create a “user” password, so this should be easy—not to mention wise. Another way is to simply password protect the folder that houses your digital library. A quick Google search should provide instructions on how to password protect a file or folder on your computer. It might be more difficult to achieve folder-specific password protection on a smart phone or tablet.

3: On what device(s) or apps will you be accessing your digital library?

If you access your documents with the Kindle or iBook app—

Actually, if you use the Kindle and iBook apps and you are satisfied with that experience, then stop reading this article because Amazon or Apple will organize your digital library for you.

But let’s say that you are supremely reasonable—which entails that you are disappointed with the Kindle or iBook experience due to the difficulties of citing or annotating Kindle Books and iBooks (or any ePub document). In this case, you would want to store your files in a format that is superior to the Kindle and iBook format: portable document format (PDF).

Just about every computer will come standard with an app that allows you to read and annotate a PDF—not so for ePub format! So if you are using a computer at a public library, then you will probably be able to read and annotate your digital library from the public computer only if the files in your library are in PDF. Also, there are a handful of apps for tablets and smartphones that can annotate (and sync with the cloud) your PDF files—I highly recommend PDF Expert by Readdle above the alternatives. So, using PDF files, like using cloud storage, has the advantage of optimal access you to your digital library.

But perhaps you have a bunch of ePub files lying around and you want to include them in your digital library. No problem. There are plenty of ways to convert an EPUB to PDF format—my preferred method is to use Calibre, which is free and open-source app. So even if you have started a Kindle or iBook library, you do not need to start your new library from scratch.

4: About how large will your digital library be?

If you plan on having, say, 100 or fewer books in your library, then you could use rather short and simple filenames for your books and articles. However, if you expect to have hundreds or thousands of books, then you will probably want to have more information in the filenames to help you search for and organize your library. Consider the following two filenames for the same book:



The first filename is fine if you have few other files in your digital library. If you needed to search for your copy of Money, then you probably wouldn’t have a problem. But let’s say you have 2000 files in your digital library. It might not be so easy to find this book without having a few more details in the filename—especially if you can only remember the author’s name. To cover the basics, I recommend including author name, publication year, and title in your filenames (e.g., the second example above).

Moreover, let’s say you have a lot of books by one author. In this case, including the publication year of the book in filenames allows you to sort the filenames in chronological order of publication, which could be handy. You might think of other information that, if included in the filename, could also be useful for sorting, searching, and organizing.

One final note about filenames. You want to be careful using certain characters in filenames. Certain characters can cause problems (e.g., some characters prevent part of the filename from being searched). I recommend using only letters, numbers, and dashes (-). Here is a list of characters to avoid (source):

blank spaces

# pound

< left angle bracket

> right angle bracket

$ dollar sign

+ plus sign

= equal sign

% percent

! exclamation point

` backtick

& ampersand

* asterisk

‘ single quotes

“ double quotes

: colon

| pipe

{ left bracket

} right bracket

? question mark

/ forward slash

\ back slash

@ at sign

5: How often will you need to cite works in this library?

If you regularly need to cite books, then you should seriously consider using a citation manager. A citation manager stores all the bibliographic information about any book, article, website, etc. So, when it comes time to cite a handful of works, a citation manager can quickly spit out a bibliography in any major format (MLA, Chicago/Turabian, APA, etc.)—compare this to manually composing and updating your bibliography. This can be an enormous time saver! Plus, it eliminates a great deal of the stress and cognitive fatigue associated with academic projects. Another great feature of these citation applications is that they can import bibliographic information in a jiffy! Once you install the plug-in for your browser, then when you find a journal article on, say, JSTOR, you can add the bibliographic information to your citation app with a single click!

After a few years of trying citation managers, I strongly prefer Zotero (free, open-source), especially when used in conjunction with the aesthetically appealing Papership companion app. Here are some other popular apps that I have tried:

Mendeley (Free | Up to 300mb of free storage)

Papers ($79) — I prefer Papers 2 to Papers 3

EndNote ($115 for students; otherwise $249)

RefWorks (Check with your university librarian)

6: How bad would it be if you lost your digital library?

This point goes for all of your digital storage. If you lost all of your digital data, would you care? If so, then you should back up your data!

Both Windows and Mac offer automatic backup options, but this does not always back up cloud storage, so you might need to figure out how you want to back up your cloud storage. Since there are multiple cloud storage options out there, I simply back up my digital library to another cloud service. I do this by regularly copying my library from one cloud folder (e.g., Dropbox) and pasting it into another cloud folder (e.g., MediaFire). Since PDF files are relatively small in size, this backup process usually only takes a few seconds or minutes (depending on connection speed, of course).


So there you have it. You have now thought through the most important considerations for your digital library. Since I have been brief and I have left out some technical details that might be of interest to technically novice readers, feel free to ask for clarification.

Featured image: “Ebook Between Paper Books” by Maximilian Schönherr licensed under CC Attribute Share-Alike 3.0)

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog