Children & technology

BarbieGirls.comA New York Times article this week by kids’ software guru Warren Buckleitner, “When Web Time is Playtime,” will frighten you at least a little with a look into the growing number of big-time companies running children’s pay sites on the Web.

What’s scary about these sites is the way they lure kids into bugging their parents to pay for “deluxe” services after they’ve gotten hooked on the basic look and feel of the sites. Here’s a description of the retooled Barbie Girls site, one of the sites that was expressly designed from the beginning as a moneymaker:

Later this month, BarbieGirls will be retooled in this way. Last year the site required the purchase of a Barbie MP3 player for access to certain content, an idea that has been abandoned. In the new version, children will be able to get in free and chat with others, dress up their on-screen dolls and decorate a room. But a collection of some games and fashion items will be off limits unless they become a V.I.P. player, which requires cash. V.I.P.’s are distinguished from the other Barbies by their sparkling tiaras.

I hoped that not too many girls are lured astray by the site. Even if they’re not, though, the big successes of gaming sites like Worlds of Warcraft for adults is logically leading companies to supply kids’ game-and-fun sites on a by-the-month basis. Both boys and girls will beg Mom and Dad to join.

Will these sites affect how we see kids using the public PCs in libraries? I think there’s a pretty good chance they will, so if you spot any of the sites mentioned in this article on the kids’ screens, you’ll know that there may well be an “I’m better than you because my Mom paid for me to have a tiara” ethic going to work.

Children and TechnologyTwo links passed me by recently that I must pass on to you. The first one takes us back to this past fall, when I was waiting anxiously for the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass to arrive in theaters. Now that TGC‘s been released on DVD, it appears as the lead in a slide show on the Entertainment Weekly site called “Read the Book! 23 Disappointing Movie Adaptations.”

I ended up going to the movies twice (one a free preview, one I paid for) to see The Golden Compass, and in the end I had to admit that although there were a lot of things I liked about the film version (I thought the cast did an excellent job with the abbreviated script), it was still too chopped up and jumbled that to be easy to follow. Plus it had been cut so short that if you hadn’t read the book, there was a lot about Lyra’s alternate world that would be hard to grasp. Its worst sin, as the caption says, was that the film version “diluted its more sinister, religion-defying Magisterium elements into family-friendly pop soda.”

The other link may gross you out, particularly when you look over at all those public access PCs that all those kids and teens are typing and mousing upon. This Yahoo News article is called “Computer keyboards can be dirtier than a toilet: study.” Here’s a quote that sums up a study done by a UK computer magazine, Which? Computing:

“Most people don’t give much thought to the grime that builds up on their PC, but if you don’t clean your computer, you might as well eat your lunch off the toilet,” said Sarah Kidner, editor of “Which? Computing” in a statement.

Does your library clean the keyboards and mice of its public PCs? If not, all I can say is “eww.” Get those latex gloves out…

Pew Internet logoI know I’m kind of behind on this one – after all, other blogs and the news media reported on it last week – but I did want to mention the newest report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. I’ve been following the Pew Internet documents for years, and I think they’re a great way for everyone who’s interested to keep up with how the Internet is changing the way our culture works everywhere you go in the US.

The report is called “Writing, Technology, and Teens.” It considers the amazing fact that writing is important to teens, and is in fact becoming more so because teens now spend so much time communicating via cell phone texting and other electronic media. But is writing text-style damaging writing in English? Here’s a quote:

A considerable number of educators and children’s advocates worry that James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, was right when he recently suggested that young Americans’ electronic communication might be damaging “the basic unit of human thought – the sentence.”

But because few folks had talked with teens about it, few folks realized that teens do take writing seriously, and want to be better writers. The press has gone all ga-ga over the report’s finding that teens are incorporating their electronic prose style (you know – no capitals at the beginnings of sentences, leaving vowels out of words, using numbers in words, etc.) into the writing they do for school.

I actually don’t think that educators have too much to worry about. Teens know that text-speech doesn’t work too well when communicating with folks (like us crotchety elders), who don’t get their abbreviated speech. What I find interesting is the change in the language which may become significant over the next few decades. Do you see, as I see, the possibility that capital letters at the beginning of sentences may go away? I don’t see any reason why they may not. We baby-boomers may become the last generation to insist on caps.

Information Literacy diagram from Ontario Library AssnJust about all librarians who work with youth agree that young people have been fairly lazy about doing research since Google got so good at finding pretty exactly whatever they need for an assignment. Kids and teens no longer need to go through the multi-step process of 1) traveling to the library; 2) looking in the catalog for the correct item; 3) going to the shelf, hoping that someone else didn’t get there before you and have checked it out already; and 4) skimming through the book/magazine article and making sure it contains what you need. Young people learned a lot from making those judgments.

Today one can do all this stuff from any spot with a device that connects to the Net, and one never needs to worry that someone got to the book you wanted first. Google piles mounds of everything with even a vague relationship to what you’re looking for in front of you with almost no effort on your part. Not that any of this is bad, but the Google-i-zation of research encourages bad habits.

Thus, young people aren’t working hard – some educators feel they’re barely working at all – to discriminate between good, useful information they find online and flaky, undocumented information. For years, school librarians have made a major effort to train young people in those skills, which are usually defined as “information literacy.”

Middle schoolers I’ve spoken to about the importance of information literacy often roll their eyes. When I spot eye-rolling, I tell them that one day soon they’ll be buying a car and insurance for it. They’ll be choosing a school or a career. They’ll be given documents with gobbeldygook to sign that might deliver big bills to their mailbox. They will need to know how to evaluate information.

But unfortunately many school districts, focused intently on one goal – getting good scores on the statewide standardized math and reading tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law – have given information literacy about as high a priority as most of us do about being good banjo players.

And thus, we have situations like that in Mesa, AZ, School District where all the certified librarians will be eliminated, because of budget cuts. Why? Because – even though no one from the district will admit it – they can, because certified librarians are not required by No Child Left Behind the way high-quality classroom teachers are.

Here’s a quote from the story in American Libraries:

The decision came as a surprise to many librarians, who were notified of the change the second week in April. “They are just reeling,” Ann Ewbank, education liaison librarian at Arizona State University in Phoenix, told AL. “This school district has done this under the radar.” She added that since librarians are considered instructional support staff, cutting their positions is not perceived as cutting classroom dollars. “They will turn libraries and media centers into warehouses. There will be no collaborative lesson planning, no information-literacy standards, and no library media programming at these schools.”

The sad news is that because No Child Left Behind doesn’t require certified librarians and the things certified librarians do for the kids, they’re ripe for the cutting. It’s very difficult to convince anyone – teachers, principals, parents, average taxpayers – in most places that librarians really can make a difference in the age of Google.

If folks need more convincing, here’s an unsettling study from the UK – from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, at University College London’s centre for publishing. It’s a higher education-level study, but you can be sure that those who reach a university with poor information literacy skills – which is exactly what this study demonstrates – learned those poor skills as kids and teens. Here’s a quote:

The report, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, found users [i.e. students] “power-browsing” or skimming material, using “horizontal” (shallow) research. Most spent only a few minutes looking at academic journal articles and few returned to them. “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense,” said the report authors.

Doesn’t that last quote – going “online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” – sound just like what you see from the average child or teen in the average library these days? Let’s get that boring homework done, so we can go play video games.

Espresso \While Amazon continues to act as if its Kindle e-book reader is a wonderful, best-selling thing, all of the other blog posts and articles I’ve seen about it seem to feel otherwise – that it, and e-book readers in general, are just not cutting the mustard.

Here’s “What If You Ran Your Bookstore Like a Library,” a Library Journal piece by librarian and mystery author Barbara Fister that I think expresses the quandary the book industry faces over e-books (and over its own future, really) very well.

Fister looks back on the days 10 years ago in which the library press was filled with articles encouraging library directors to take some tips from bookstore managers and package and sell books the way bookstore owners did. (You’ve heard it all, I’m sure – display those books covers out, and use easy-to-grasp subjects, such as “Cookbooks” and “History,” instead of Dewey Decimal numbers.)

But now, she says, things have turned 180 degrees; bookstores have closed all over the country in huge numbers over the past decade, while library visits and library circulation numbers continue to be healthy (even if the role of librarians has grown a bit iffier).

Fister feels that the publishing industry has become its own worst enemy, and points at the restrictions placed on e-books as one reason why. Here’s what she says about the Kindle (which at one point she describes as “clunky”):

I read the reviews and commentary and realized why I’d never buy one: it’s an expensive if lightweight box to carry a bunch of books that are rented at only a small savings over the cost of discounted print books. I say “rented” because the buyer can’t share them and can’t sell them. They can only shop at one bookstore, and it works only if the buyer happens to be in the parts of the United States that have the right sort of Sprint coverage. (Amazon to Montana: drop dead.)

I agree, and I would add that if you want to get young people – who are used to unrestricted access to music and video – interested in books, devices with all the Kindle’s restrictions are not the way to do it.

Fister points to Print on Demand (POD) technology as something that will make a difference in both bookstores and libraries. If we can get publishers to agree to give us the right to print out copies of midlist or backlist books with inexpensive paperback bindings and sell them at a reasonable cost at a local bookstore (or a local big-box store, for that matter), or – ahem – at a library, demand for books just might pick up again.

The POD device pictured here is called the Espresso, and it spent part of this past summer at the Science, Industry, & Business Library of New York Public Library. I heard a lot about it, but I never made it over to see it at work. I was told that it was “extremely cool,” and a few of the people who went to see it could definitely picture it in the library of the future. Instead of Interlibrary Loans, how about the opportunity to have Espresso-ready files of books that could be downloaded and printed, so that anyone who wanted a long-out-of-print book (ahem; such as these if you’re answering a demand for children’s books) could buy a copy for $10 or so?

The technology’s there and ready, folks. It’s only the publishers and copyright holders who aren’t.

Gaming & Libraries UpdateThe joke’s on me, and I admit it. I wasn’t displeased (despite my crusty remarks earlier) to hear from a lot of people who have done research into gaming in libraries, and it appears that gaming does do good things to attract teens into the building – and that they will use and check out library materials. In fact, there’s a new ALA TechSource report by Jenny Levine called “Gaming and Libraries Update.”

I have to admit I am amused by the quote they use from Levine, though.

“In an uncharacteristically (for our profession) viral and rapid way, videogame services in libraries broke through the niche, cult-like status that had relegated them to something only geeky nerds did at home in the basement,” she says.

Huh? I know this is a promotional quote, and I know Levine knows the real score, but the thing we should actually be asking is, “Why the heck did libraries wait more than ten years before promoting video games in the library?” I’ve watched kids and teens playing games on library public-access Web terminals since the very first day there were public-access terminals. Kids seemed to know what sites had games, and zipped right to them.

We all know that libraries are really slow to adapt to new technologies. Often it’s a good thing to be a little slow on the uptake – if public libraries had grabbed on to 8-track tapes or CD-ROMs when they first appeared, we’d have huge collections of stuff in those formats we’d probably still be slowly discarding. But it is pretty funny to see ALA trumpeting how groundbreaking it is having gaming in the libraries – ten years late.


China has been showing off its technological wonders as it gears up for the Beijing Olympics this summer. Among those wonders is an “automated librarian machine” that issues library cards and lets citizens of the booming factory city of Shenzhen check out books and other media without entering an actual library building. In other words, the machines are teeny automated branches.

Evidently once these machines are installed throughout the city, cardholders will be able to place a book or DVD on reserve and it will be delivered to that machine in a matter of days. The article says:

“It’s really convenient. It only took 16 seconds to issue a book card [library card?], and half a minute to eject books,” a local library patron surnamed La told the newspaper after testing the machine near the library.

Readers can also reserve books through the library Web site or the machine. Once the book is available, the reader will receive a text message, and the book will be delivered to the self-service machines closest to the reader.

These machines hold 400 books or other materials, and users can search the catalog to place things on hold, or borrow one of the high-demand items (at least I assume that if you ran a 400-volume library, you’d have only high-demand items) in the machine for anyone to borrow. I also assume a delivery truck would reload the machine daily.

I’m amused by the fact that it’s called a “librarian machine.” The only librarians involved here are probably doing the planning in the Shenzhen Library. As far as services to children, sure – this machine can deliver materials needed for school assignments (if kids or parents know exactly what material they need), or easy readers, or Thomas the Tank Engine videos. But it can’t do a storytime or make recommendations as to what to read next.

David MacaulayHey, here’s some great news – author and illustrator David Macaulay is giving the Arbuthnot Lecture on Thursday evening, April 17, at 7 p.m. Central time in Madison, WI. He’s the creator of everything from Pyramid and Cathedral to Motel of the Mysteries.

Unfortunately, I can’t get that day off, and can’t afford to travel from Austin to Madison, and you probably can’t get that day off either – plus you probably wouldn’t want to fly anywhere right now even if you could, especially on American Airlines.

But, hey – it doesn’t matter, because if you go to this address at Madison’s South Central Library System site on Thurs at 7 p.m. Central, you can watch and hear the lecture via live streaming video on your own PC. It’s supposed to last about an hour. A streaming Arbuthnot – what a great idea! Be there online or be L-7.

\Here’s something that I found highly amusing – an announcement at the Anime News Network of a new anime called “Library War.” I’ve never heard of Chocolate Underground or Prince of Tennis, the director’s other works, but I guess this is a big deal in the anime world, of which I am embarrassingly ignorant.

The movie clip is in Japanese, so most of us won’t know what the characters are talking about, but it appears that all the young cool characters don green uniforms to defend libraries and bookstores against a repressive force (boo! hiss!) in brown (mauve? I couldn’t tell) uniforms. There’s a young teen girl among them who seems to be driven utterly wild when a hulking soldier tries to take her books away. Here’s the description of the film:

The action comedy anime adapts Hiro Arikawa‘s popular novel about battles fought to preserve libraries when a new law threatens to clamp down on freedom of expression in 2019.

I’ve never heard of Hiro Arikawa. I wonder if any of his stuff has ever been translated into English?

Children and TechnologyHere are a few follow-up items I found on the Web that you might find worth your time:

American Libraries posted a “sum-it-all-up” story, “Library Worker’s Firing Sparks Firestorm,” on the furor at the Tulare County (CA) Library that tells the story in a slightly different, library-staff-oriented, way that the regular media never did. I’m still wondering what the whole story is; you can be sure there is stuff we’ll probably never hear about.

Then, on the other hand there’s this overview of the “evils of the Net” issue from the Fresno Bee. It’s designed, I feel, to make any parents reading it to grow at least uneasy over those liberals at the ALA. It seems to take the point that the “challenges” the Internet presents to public libraries are “new.” Ummm…

And here’s an unrelated Chicago Tribune interview with Jon Scieszka that I’m including mostly because it’s great to see the let’s-all-chill-&-not-worry-so-much attitude he takes over the issue of children’s reading. It’s called “In praise of ‘stupid reading’.” Hooray.

One more completely miscellaneous thing – author Margaret Atwood wrote this wry appreciation of Anne of Green Gables for the Gables is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I’ve never read it – I’ve never met a man who has, although I’m sure there must be at least a few – but it’s a well-remembered favorite of lots of female librarians I know.

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