In my last post, I showed some of the ways libraries are using video to provide information in new forms, promote their libraries, and provide fresh programming opportunities.’  In my next few posts, I’ll explore some of the low-to-no cost options you can use to incorporate video in your library services.

In the last couple of years, a new generation of digital camcorders has emerged, aimed at ease of use, point-and-shoot functionality, and uploading online. These simple, sub $200 devices offer a small set of controls and automatic features, allowing you to point, press record, and upload easily.

The most popular of this generation are the Flip Video cameras (pictured left), which have an almost iPod-like elegance to the design and fairly decent picture quality. You might also want to take a look at the RCA Small Wonder and Creative Vado, which are comparatively popular, as well as browse Amazon’s product pages (sorted low to high) for even further options.

When deciding to buy a camera, don’t buy on hype alone. Make sure you take a good look at the camera specs and search out additional reviews (try or the customer reviews on ExpoTV) so that you can balance budget with features and ultimately make the purchase that is right for you.

  • Resolution – resolution will affect how much detail will fit into the image. Higher numbers will produce higher quality images. You’ll either see it in terms of a dimension (e.g., 640 x 320) or a total pixel count (3.1 megapixels). Either way, bigger is better.
  • Bitrate – the bitrate is how much information is crammed into each second and also affects video quality. Most cameras will rate this in megabits (Mbits). Again, a higher number leads to better quality video, though it will take up more space on a memory card or hard drive. Better cameras will let you choose.
  • Light sensors – pay special attention to how the camera functions in different lighting conditions. Libraries aren’t known for their great lighting, so you’ll often be shooting in less than ideal circumstances (on a related note, see if you can point a few floor lamps at your subject).
  • Memory and battery life – these go hand in hand, as they’re both going to dictate how long you can record. Do you anticipate ever recording scenes from a longer program, such as a wizard rock concert or author reading? If so, invest in larger memory and longer battery life. You also want to consider if the memory is internal, or if you have to purchase it separately (adding another cost to your library). You also want to think about whether the battery is internal. Because once the battery runs out of juice, it takes your whole device down with it.
  • Multi-functionality – many of these cameras also function natively as a still camera or webcam (for live-broadcasting online). Others only let you take stills from the video, with exceptionally less quality. You can save money in the long-run by buying a more expensive unit that meets multiple needs.
  • Integrated software – recording to memory saves lots of time by not making you have to capture video onto your computer and integrating with your favorite video site. But if your camera’s software is a bust (or if it doesn’t include software), you’ll waste just as much time trying to edit a simple movie or upload your videos. Pay attention to the quality of the software when reading over the review.
  • Fold-out screen – if you’ll be recording yourself a lot, being able to see yourself will mean the difference between recording your entire face and getting a great shot of your chin. Make sure the LCD folds out!
  • Simplicity – ultimately, you aren’t just making this purchase for you, but for other staff. What needs do they have from their device? Will more than three buttons make it unusable? You can still buy on a budget for more tech-minded staff, with the surprisingly powerful Aiptek A-HD 720P High Definition Camcorder, but definitely make sure you are polling coworkers on their comfort level (and don’t forget: training, training, training!).

You can turn budget cams into further budget by not shying away from refurbished models that you can sometimes find in the Warehouse Deals,,, and each manufacturer’s own website. If consumerism hurts you like it hurts me, check to see if your area has a Freecycle list, in which people request and exchange unwanted goods. Somebody may be able to provide you with a digital camcorder in exchange for the tax write-off.

If you have any questions (including questions about purchasing a more complete solution on a larger budget), feel free to post a comment. You can also e-mail me or IM me at josephjwilk.

~Joseph Wilk
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Teen

About Joseph Wilk

I'm a teen library assistant with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Main location. Here, I'm the graphic novel and music librarian in addition to running anime, music, LGBTQ, incarcerated youth, and video programming. I'm happy to serve YALSA as a blogger, member of the Teen Tech Week committee, and as chair of the Music Interest Group. Otherwise, you can find me in da club.

2 Thoughts on “Tools of the Trade: Choosing a Budget Mini-Cam

  1. Linda Braun on July 4, 2008 at 8:47 am said:

    I am a huge fan of the Flip. The videos posted on the blog from ALA Annual were all shot with that camera. Good quality – picture and sound – for something so small and inexpensive. I also like that you can grab still photos from frames in a Flip video. Because of that it ends up that I use the Flip not just for video but for stills.

  2. Joseph Wilk on July 4, 2008 at 10:00 am said:

    My review of the Flip Ultra (MSRP $149.99)…


    * an hour of recording time
    * relatively high-resolution screen, which can be used in daylight
    * good video quality (640 x 480, 4.0 Mbps, 30 frames per second)
    * records sound comparatively well
    * fast lens for decent low-light quality
    * uses external batteries, which allows for longer shelf-life
    * very easy to use software, which offers basic editing and direct upload to a few video services


    * no flip-out screen, making it harder to record yourself
    * short, flip-out USB arm is not as friendly to desktops and can take up a lot of USB real estate (unless you buy an extension cable, sold separately)
    * stills from video only (which are going to be lower quality than if it also functioned as a digital camera)

    The Flip Video works great for librarians who are going to be recording other people, and its fairly decent mic even makes it a reasonable option for sound-heavy videos like presentations, author talks, and library music performances. Its video quality and ease of use will allow you to put comparatively high-quality videos online with no trouble. However, librarians who can only budget for a single digital camera/camcorder solution, or those who will often be recording themselves for booktalks (etc.), might wish to look elsewhere.

    I loved the videocasting from Annual this year, by the way. What a great way to bring the conference home in a visceral fashion for those of us who couldn’t make it!

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