Last summer, I was talking with someone from the planning committee of the Dartmouth Biomedical Libraries’ Fall Conference. Their theme was “Cool Tools and New Technologies” and I asked her if they were going to have someone speak about screencasting. Her response was “but everyone knows about screencasting already.”


Maybe I travel in the wrong circles, but I know plenty of librarians who know little or nothing about screencasting. And even if they know about screencasting software, many of them have never used it themselves.

According to Jon Udell, the man who coined the term screencast (though the software has existed since the late 90s), “a screencast is a digital movie in which the setting is partly or wholly a computer screen, and in which audio narration describes the on-screen action.” Screencasts are often used to demonstrate software and so are great for library tutorials. What’s so cool about it is the fact that instead of reading a list of instructions on how to use a database or some other tool, a screencast concretely shows the librarian going into the database and executing searches. I’m the sort of person who needs to see something done to learn how to do it and I’ve never been able to learn much from text instructions. Screencasts are all about video, but often also include audio, captions and even interactive components. You can show a user how to do a search and then have them execute a similar search before the screencast will advance.

Lots of academic libraries have created tutorials on how to use library databases, the catalog, ILL, etc. However, I haven’t found too many public libraries using screencasting, though the two examples I have found are great ones. I am in love with the Calgary Public Library’s basic Internet tutorials — they’re concrete, interactive and really polished. I can’t imagine how long it took to produce these. The tutorials at the Orange County Public Library are pretty spiffy too.

When I first discovered screencasting three years ago (before I even worked in a library and before screencasts were called screencasts) I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I was blown away by how easy it was to create a Flash movie of your desktop with very little in the way of tech-savvy. You can make a very basic screencast — that you film and narrate simultaneously — in 20 minutes. Or you can spend an entire day or more developing a really polished screencast tutorial. Other than the time invested, screencasts are pretty easy to create. I tried out Camtasia and Captivate (and reviewed them here) and found them both really intuitive. I’m still very excited about screencasting, but my enthusiasm has been tempered by the realities of creating them for library patrons. I thought I’d be creating screencasts day-in and day-out when I first got my job, but I have realized that it’s not always the best solution.

Screencasting has some major drawbacks. The first is the size of the file created. A movie of just five minutes can be as big as five megabytes, which is fine for those of us with broadband, but for people on dial-up, it can take forever to download. I recently created a screencast introduction to library services and resources for our online learners, and I felt that I had to create a text and screenshot HTML version of the same tutorial for students on dialup or those who can’t play audio for some reason. In addition, they take up lots of space on the server and can be real bandwidth suckers if they get a lot of use. Another issue is that databases and other things we might be demonstrating may change, forcing us to completely redo our screencast. I’d created a screencast on using Thomas about a week before they redesigned their Website and had to do it all over again. I’ve also completely redone our Web portal for distance learners since creating this screencast for Academic Search Premiere (though the students still could probably figure out how to find the database). Finally, screencasts can take a long time to create. I’m sure there are some people out there who can competently narrate a screencast and do the screen capture part flawlessly at the same time, but I’m definitely not one of them. I usually do the screen capture and then add elements like captions and highlighting. Sometimes I find that I missed something and have to film extra pieces and paste them in later on. Only once I have all the video ready do I do the narration and I need a script for that (otherwise you’d hear a lot of “umms” and “likes”). Finally, I edit the timing of the slides so that the audio syncs up with what I’m demonstrating. It takes a good long while to do… a lot longer than a little HTML tutorial that I can create in a couple of hours.

There are a few studies out there that have evaluated the efficacy of screencast tutorials, but none that have really shown that screencasts are better than any other method of instruction (at least none I’ve found). Paul Pival describes one interesting study, “If you buld it, will they learn? Assessing online information literacy tutorials,” which recently appeared in College and Research Libraries. It found that students who watched their screencasts were more confident in their abilities to use the resources, but that their test scores really didn’t improve. Intuitively, I assume that screencasts would be far more effective than more text-based tutorials. I also would think that some students (though certainly not all) would find screencast tutorials more helpful than face-to-face instruction because they can go at their own pace and repeat the screencast endlessly. But I really haven’t seen any studies that show that screencasting is really an effective tool for library instruction. And I often worry about investing time and resources in something that hasn’t been empirically shown to be better than other methods of instruction. It’s not going to stop me from creating screencasts when they seem like the best option, but I wish I’m going to reserve judgment on them until I see some evidence.

Here are some resources for learning more about screencasting:

Paul Pival gave a wonderful talk on screencasting for the SirsiDynix Institute a few weeks ago. You can listen to his Webcast, Show and Tell The Easy Way – An Introduction to Screencasting, in their archive (video coming soon!) and a list of links on his blog. Also, definitely check out the Q&A he put on his blog with the questions he didn’t have time to answer during the session.

Although it’s a bit old, Screencasting to Help Your Mom, by Amit Agarwal at Digital Inspiration is a great introduction to screencasting and the major software options.

The Screencasting post at Donation Coder is extremely detailed. It describes what screencasting is and what people should be looking for in screencasting software. It also reviews, in detail, the popular (and less popular) screencasting tools.

LibCasting is a great new blog all about screencasting from Greg Notess, who is one of the very few people who has been talking about screencast tutorials for a long time.

Animated Tutorial Sharing Project (ANTS) — this project is designed to collect database screencast tutorials so that libraries are not constantly having to reinvent the wheel. A basic tutorial for Academic Search Premiere can be used by people in all different libraries since we’re all dealing with the same interface. The tutorials are stored in a DSPACE instance at the University of Calgary and can be used by people at other universities. They’ve got a big wishlist for tutorials, so if you have one that others could use, please consider sharing it. I’m definitely going to endeavor to make my screencasts more generic from now on, both to share with others and for my own sanity.

Ok, back to my red runny nose, my swollen throat and my raspy voice. Bed, not blog, sounds like a very good idea right now.