Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reading in the Future, Part 2

Last Christmas Eve, I blogged about the new skills we might need as we migrate to electronic texts. Based on my experience reading Kindle books on my phone, I worried that these skills would be hard to attain. I still think it's an issue, but I've - very reluctantly - broken down and bought a Kindle.

The Kindle's advantages are many, particularly the outstanding display. But what sold me wasn't the Kindle-format books - it was the PDF reader. I have amassed nearly 500 PDFs of journal articles, white papers, book chapters, and whole books, and being able to carry and review them in one place is a game-changer. No more printouts, no more filling the precious space in my carry-on bags with heavy books. Yes, so that's all very nice.

Of course, I still have to go through some gymnastics to make sure I can actually read the PDFs on the Kindle's small screen, such as turning some PDFs sideways. (I could have bought an oversized Kindle DX, but didn't even consider the option - too big to carry.)

But here's what is tasking me now. Now that I can make all these PDFs portable, can I automatically pull PDFs of whole journals so that I can easily drop them on the Kindle?

Let's take an example. Every month, I sweep through my library's electronic subscriptions to certain journals such as Written Communication and JBTC. Both allow you to authenticate through the library, then click through to current or back issues, selecting and downloading PDFs of individual articles. Of course, I just download a few at a time, because the process is labor intensive. Sure, I don't have to walk to the library and photocopy them, but at (say) 30 seconds per article, I have to be pretty motivated to download all the PDFs before getting to the next journal.

Can I automate the downloading? That would be ideal. I'd love to be able to drop in a list of journals, then have my machine
  1. scan the journals' sites for new issues
  2. download all PDFs associated with the new issue
  3. rename the PDFs according to a set scheme (say, author + title + journal)
  4. inform me when new issues have been downloaded
  5. automatically copy them to the Kindle when it's plugged in
Wouldn't you? What a huge time saver this would be. But this turns out to be a hard problem:
  • Journals are owned by different publishers, and each requires that you authenticate with them (via the library, in my case).
  • Even if you can get them to authenticate, the easy mass-download solutions I've found (e.g., DownThemAll, wget) may not be smart enough to traverse the two levels of links that Written Communication puts between the Current Issue page and the actual PDFs.
Has anyone put together a workable solution for this situation? If so, I'd love to hear it.

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