Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Madd Money: Peninsula Library System and Safari Books Online

One of the things that has made 2008 and 2009 memorable for me is the fact that I made a conscientious decision to not buy new books, and to use the public library as often as possible to read, learn and discover things. One area that I have found to be mildly frustrating has been the area of technical books for Computer Science. In many cases, the books that I am most interested in (or need to be most interested in) are the newer ones, and in many cases, the Public Library doesn't have many of those yet.

What's more, not every technical book is created equal. I freely admit to being a fan of the O' Reilly book line. O' Reilly is probably best known for the old style wood block prints of various animals on their covers, but even more key is the way in which their books are written. There is a specific formula, and this formula is especially appealing to me. They use every book and teach fundamentals (regardless the topic) for the first three or four chapters. Everyone who reads these books knows this, and because of that, tech geeks joke about the books that we never read past chapter 3 or 4, or the books that we all have that we start on chapter 4. So in general, when given a choice, I tend to gravitate towards O' Reilly books. There are some O' Reilly titles in the library, but many of them are the broader and more general topics.More specific titles are a little harder to come by.

Several years ago, O' Reilly launched Safari Books Online. This is a collection of technical books, cross references and code samples that allows for the user to read through literally thousands of books, many of them as specialized as your needs require. There is a subscription fee associated with the service. If you have a steady diet of technical books, say one or two a month (in previous jobs and at various times, I certainly have had that level of demand) the subscription made a lot of sense. However, in the last few years, I have not had the same level of need, and thus paying for the subscription was seen as a luxury. But I really did miss it at times, and often wondered if I should renew it for my own career development.

Well, the great news is that the San Mateo Peninsula Library System (i.e. the one that I am a part of) has answered it for me... it's a service offered by the PLS, and my library card gets me access to the Safari Books Online subscription! Lately, I have been exploring C#, a programming language my company is deciding to use for all future development. Going the traditional library route, I may have to wait several weeks for a title to come in, and in the event that it's not an O' Reilly book, i may work through several sections to decide that I'm not digging this particular book (unlike a business book or a novel, I need to actually feel connected to a computer or technical book. If I don't, I don't feel that I learn as well. Sometimes, even O' Reilly books have this problem, and then I may need to wait a few more weeks before another title is available that I can try. With Safari, I can go right to the titles that interest me, and withing ten or 15 minutes, I will know if this is a book that will work for what I want to do.

So for those of you out there who often cite the lack of certain titles as to why the library won't work for what you want to do, especially you computer geek types like me, ask your public library if they have a Safari Books Online Subscription, or if they use a comparable service. If they do, try it out for awhile and see if it works for what you want to do, and finally, if you find yourself being a dedicated user of the system, consider giving SFO some love and subscribing directly. If it's going to be a "Casual Affair", then by all means, use the library's system... you do pay for it, after all :).

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