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international librarian of mystery

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Not the head-exploding type, but pretty close...

One of the drawbacks of being young(ish), (relatively) computer-savvy, and (generally) polite, is that I get called upon to help older, slightly more doddery librarians with all problems IT. Yesterday was a classic example. Mrs Oolong, one of the senior librarians, came and pulled me off returns to help her out with some scanning. She'd be struggling for nearly an hour, she told me, to scan in a book cover.

This didn't surprise me - the scanner we've got is turn-of-century vintage, and the supporting software (which I'm sure we could upgrade if someone let me have admin privilege - dreams are free) is counter-intuitive and buggy. Anyway, Mrs Oolong, despite having been walked through the process on about half a dozen previous occasions, was still struggling to get a usable image.

"Every time I scan in the book, the computer slows right down, and then when I save it, it crashes!" she admonished me (yes, admonished, like it was my fault. This is one of Mrs Oolong's major faults: projecting her IT problems onto the people around her). I got her to retrace the steps of what she'd done previously.

She opened the graphics package we use to (hooray! a good start).
She correctly selected the obscure 'acquire' command from the File menu. (Very good).
She set the scan type: colour photo (close enough)
She set the dpi: 1200dpi (!)

"Umm," I said, "that might be your problem - 1200dpi is going to give you a pretty big image. I don't know if this PC has enough memory to handle that kind of image size." (It almost certainly wouldn't, being about as archaic as the scanner it was attached to).
"But Mrs Kenilworth [fellow senior librarian - not equipped, I might add, to being giving advice on IT matters] told me that the higher the dpi number, the higher resolution picture we would get out of it."
"Well, yes, that's true but, well, 1200dpi is very high resolution. Magazines and most print material is done at 300dpi, and, well, what is this image going to be used for?"
"The web team are putting together a new books page. I'm supposed to scan in this pile...," she indicated a pile of about 20 books - about three days work at her current rate, "...for adding to the website."
"So the resolution doesn't need to be that high. We can probably get away with 72dpi - that's pretty standard for web stuff."
"But I still want them to look nice and clear."
"Well, you can scan in at a slightly higher resolution and then shrink them down, but I doubt the difference would be that great."
"How about we scan them in at 300dpi? If that's what they use for magazines, that would be good enough, wouldn't it?"
I acquiesced. "Yes, let's do it that way."

So, she put the book cover down on the scanner and hit scan. The scanner chunked and whirred its way through a painful-sounding two minute scan (like I say, it's an old scanner), and finally regurgitated the image into our graphics editor. Upside-down. And cropped.

"Well," said Mrs Oolong, "that didn't work properly, did it? Shall we increase the resolution to get the missing bit back?"

I love the way some people's brains work.

"I think we just need to preview the image first, before scanning - we need to select the correct scanning area."

Snip out about 10 more minutes of technical toing and froing here, including a barely-understood demonstration on how to use the marquee tool to draw a bounding box. We eventually got there, and had the book cover correctly selected. Still upside down though - I didn't want to confuse matters (oh how I was to regret that decision), by getting her to flip it now. We scanned. The image popped into the graphics editor. Correctly cropped, but upside down. And massive.

"Well," said Mrs Oolong, "I think that size is about perfect. How do we turn it around?"
"Actually, it's about 10 times that size," I pointed out. "That's just the current display size. See the zoom indicator?"
"That means we're zoomed right out, so we can see the whole image. It's very very large. We'll have to shrink it first."
"And rotate it?"
"Well, yes, but..."

Too late - Mrs Oolong had clicked on the 'rotate right 90 degrees' icon that stood out prominently amongst the otherwise impossible-to-decipher hieroglyphics on the toolbar. The computers hard drive started whirring and complaining as the PC's memory suddenly found itself having to deal with a multi-megabyte image transform. After about 30 seconds, the status indicator froze up, and the hard drive started making some bad noises. Freeze up.

Mrs Oolong humphed. "This is what it did the other times," she complained. I ctrl-alt-deleted and closed the graphics app, much to Mrs Oolong's amazement. Again, snip out five minutes of explanation here as to how to close non-responding software without resorting to turning off the PC at the wall.

Eventually we got back to where we were. I convinced Mrs Oolong that putting the book 'upside-down' in the scanner was key to our success, and that lowering the dpi to 150 (compromised on that one) might also help. We scanned, we got the image, things were definitely looking good. I gave up on the idea of resizing the images now - that was something the web-team could sort out for themselves, I figured. We just needed to get it to them in a usable format. Mrs Oolong hit the save button. The save dialog popped up, and she (unprompted!) entered a relatively meaningful file name for the book cover image.

Now, one of the many things that catches people out about our graphics package is that it saves to a proprietary format, and since we're the only people who seem to be using this bit of software, sending that format to anyone else is a total waste of time. Naturally, saving as a jpg would make it much easier to deal with downstream. Too late, Mrs Oolong had clicked the 'Save' button and saved the image as a xyz or somesuch.

"We'll have to save the image as a jpg so the webteam can see it," I informed Mrs Oolong.
"A jay peg?"
"It's a type of web-specific image file. The one we just saved is no good for the web, and the web-team might not have the software to convert it. It'd be safest if we just saved it as a jpg here to start with. It'll also make it much smaller, so we can email it without risk of the mail system freaking out over the size."
"We don't want to make it smaller do we? We've already lowered to 150dpi haven't we?"
"Smaller file size, I mean. The actual physical size of the image will stay the same."
"How does that work then?" she asked, suspiciously.

I would have launched into my very limited knowledge of image compression techniques at that point, but time was dragging, and I was due for a tea break, so I gave a curt "I have no idea", and walked her through the 'save as...' process (another painstaking exercise that took 5 minutes longer than it should have to master - problem being she had no idea where she was saving her images to). We fired up her email, and sent off the image to the web-team. I hung around for another ten minutes to make sure she could get through the whole routine on her own (only had to steer her right four or five times), and then scuttled off for a triple Milo (all milk) to relax.

Thankfully, twenty minutes later I was on reference, and thus not able to be pulled away when I saw Mrs Oolong pop out of the lift and start scanning the library for yet more technical assistance. I pointed her towards our new super-star boy librarian who was on returns, and saw him getting the 'come-and-save-me' look from Mrs Oolong. He dutifully disappeared into the lift with her, to return half an hour later, shaking his head. I haven't yet caught up with him about what he helped out with, but I suspect, goldfish-like, that Mrs Oolong had forgotten everything I'd told her in the previous hour, and had to start from scratch.