Library Media Servers

Several months ago a friend and I were enjoying the Blu-Ray vs. HD debate until that mess sorted itself out. I remember saying at the time that I thought either format was just a stopgap measure until better/faster broadband and home media servers combine to allow us to purchase our high-definition movies online and download them directly to our own servers for storing and playing in a variety of ways.

This (kind of) reminded me of the way our music library worked when I started college. Students could search the catalog, but we were not allowed to browse the LPs. When the library started adding CDs it was under the same restriction. Students also could not handle these media items themselves: all of the items and equipment were managed in a sound room that output to numbered listening stations. If students needed to listen to the same track – or even worse, to a few measures of a track – over and over, they had to constantly ask the librarian to restart the section.

Of course that changed with time. But with so many bits and pieces of technology now in place, I want to achieve a similar end for different reasons. I want to take that old notion of students not being allowed to handle the media items and change that into students not having to handle the media items. We have a couple of online music databases that in some ways obviate the need for a media server. However, most libraries will have a collection of media items that are not available through subscription services. Whether it’s a video of a lecture held on campus or that one particular Mendelssohn recording that brings out the nuance a professor wants to highlight, online subscriptions can’t be all things to all people.

So when will media servers come into their own as a library tool? From a number of comments on Engadget, it sounds like a lot of people are taking a do-it-yourself approach for home servers.

What would this service look like in a library setting? (I’ll set aside copyright discussions and leave those to others since I have little experience in that area.) There should be an intuitive yet flexible librarian interface for importing data. The system should be able to read import media from many sources: ideally, if the library can play it and the player has an output jack, the media server should be able to import it. The media server should integrate easily with the library’s patron authentication system. The media server should be robust enough to serve many simultaneous streams to in-building, on-campus, and off-site locations with no performance degradation. Oh, and the user interface should be both slick and powerful. That’s not asking too much, now is it?  😉

No Closed Captioning Over HDMI

720. 1080. Interlaced. Progressive scan. HDMI.

If those terms are familiar, chances are you’ve been investigating the world of high definition video. High definition (or hi-def or simply HD) promises superior image quality through compatible components such as televisions, HD cable or satellite TV, Blu-ray DVDs, or the now-defunct HD DVD format.

Tonight I connected the cable box to the television via an HDMI cable. HDMI is the newest cabling alternative to coax, composite, S-video, and other formats. It took a few minutes of watching before I realized it, but it suddenly occurred to me that my TV was no longer displaying any closed captioning. I tried adjusting the settings. I tried another program. It just wasn’t there.

I did some quick Googling, and apparently the HDMI format doesn’t support closed captioning. Say what? The newest video format and the highest television resolution available can’t support something as basic as closed captioning?

I’m still doing some reading on the issue, but at best it appears that it MIGHT work. Depening on the tv, the cable/satellite box, and the signal provider, your mileage may vary. So far there seems to be no strong consensus on this issue other than frustration. Strangely enough, downgrading to a composite connection restores the closed captioning, but who wants to downgrade?

So what are the implications here? It sounds like most people who want the highest quality image will have to do without closed captioning. Anyone who is hearing impaired, anyone who wants to view foreign language content, anyone who just wants to keep from waking the baby can either do without closed captioning or use an inferior connection.

Interestingly, closed captioning is a separate issue from subtitles on high definition DVDs. Subtitles are encoded as part of the disc’s content while closed captioning is carried as part of the television broadcast signal. It seems that the Line 21 closed captioning standard simply isn’t supported by HDMI.

This issue is discussed on a number of forums. Click below for additional reading.