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Tiny Playaway audio books arrive in Manatee libraries

MANATEE — It’s so small — no larger than a half deck of cards — that it rests comfortably in an adult palm.

Yet, it contains an immense amount of information: a narrated book playing up to 80 hours that’s as portable as an iPod. But unlike an iPod, it comes permanently preloaded.

The Manatee County Library system recently introduced Playaway Digital Audio Books to the Central and Braden River library facilities and is in the process of making them available to the other four, including Palmetto, Rocky Bluff, Island and South Manatee branches.

The nearly 180 titles available include childrens books, self-improvement, biographies, novels and more. Everything from “Creep from the Deep” to “A Briefer History of Time” by Steven Hawking.

Judy Mullen, assistant supervisor at the Braden River branch, said the Playaway technology is far smaller than older systems, such as compact discs or cassettes.

“Where once you had 13 discs for one book, now you have one little itty-bitty box,” Mullen said. “People have been warming to them.”

The Playaways can be listened to on a set of earplugs or headphones or played through a set of speakers.

Kevin Beach, collection development supervisor, says it’s a little hard to tell what the hottest offerings will be, but initial indications are that self-improvement, business practices and biographies are popular.

“People have downtime in their cars to listen to them,” Beach said.

Cathy Laird, branch manager at Braden River, said that library customers who have discovered the Playaway collection are looking for more.

They like the quality and ease of use, as well as the ability to move back and forth between chapters and within chapters, The device also allows readers to alter the speed of the narrator’s voice and has an automatic bookmark feature that “remembers” where the listener left off.

The library system is no longer putting money into first-generation technology like cassettes, but is concentrating on CDs and Playaway. The cost to the library system for the new audio books range from $39 for a childrens book to $60-$79 for a book for adults.

That makes them cheaper than some of the CD books, which can cost more than $100, and are susceptible to scratching or melting, Beach said.

The Playaways can be checked out for three weeks, and an additional three weeks if there is not a waiting list.

The next step in library technology could allow customers to log on from their home computer and download entire books. But that is still in the future and still under study, Beach said.

Although new technology continues to evolve, good-old fashioned printed and bound books will continue to be provided in the time-honored, traditional way on library shelves.