January 2008


Children and LibrariesEvery so often we hear about an adult – usually a parent – who objects loudly when a library allows a child or young teen to borrow an R-rated video. Martin J. Nagle of West Brookfield, MA, complained to the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library (MGPL) last year after his 11-year-old daughter checked out a DVD of the 2006 movie Underworld: Evolution, sequel to Underworld. The series is a horror-fantasy about battling tribes of werewolves and vampires, and it’s rated R “for pervasive strong violence and gore, some sexuality – nudity and language.”

Nagle said that the library had no business allowing his daughter to check the movie out, but Library Director Lisa Careau says that the library follows the precepts of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, and allows card-holders to take out anything they choose. His challenge went before the MGPL Board, but the Board decided not to change the circ policy. Nagle told the Republican, the local newspaper, that “he has contacted the state about the library’s loan policy… [he] said he wants to learn whether the library’s policy is accurate.” (Huh?) But he would not reveal the person or agency he contacted.

The thing I found interesting about this story was not the DVD complaint – those are nothing new. Careau said that many adults are surprised that public libraries don’t work the way school libraries do – that unlike schools, public libraries do not act in loco parentis (in the place of the parent), and cannot decide what material is proper or improper for a particular child.

But the description of MGPL’s policy about who is allowed into the library unaccompanied, and at what age, is way more interesting to me. Librarians who get headaches dealing with latchkey kids who stay all afternoon (or all day on school holidays when parents must work) might find the following worth a read, the second sentence in particular:

Children 8 years old or younger must be accompanied by someone 14 or older, [Careau] said. Children, who are 9 to 13, may visit unattended, but for a maximum of two hours, she said.

Those 14 or older are unrestricted in their attendance, but like any visitor, may be asked to leave if they break library rules….

I can’t help but wonder how this works in practice. I’ve worked in libraries where low-income working parents depend on the library to “babysit” their middle-school-aged kids from 2:45 to 6 p.m. every day, and I know what they’d be complaining to the Board about.

(NOTE: this MassLive.com story will be available only for 14 days.)

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Jon ScieszkaWhoa and hooray – here we see what happens when Jon Scieszka gets busy as the Library of Congress’s new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He’s written a great column for New York’s Daily News, promoting his belief that adults don’t need to go into a nervous tizzy over the fact that American kids are reading less than they have in previous decades. Instead, he says, we simply need to make certain kids know that reading “for pleasure” can be fun. When you’re young, who wants to do something that isn’t enjoyable?

Here’s my favorite quote, about an incident from the ten years he spent teaching elementary school:

I once casually told my class of second-graders that we didn’t need to finish every book we started. If we didn’t like it, we could start another, find something we liked.

They were stunned. “You can do that?”

And so for the next week, of course, no child finished any book.

Scieszka believes that kids should be given access to read whatever they want. “Avoid demonizing television, computer games, and new technologies,” he says. “Electronic media may compete for kids’ attention, but we are not going to get kids reading by badmouthing other entertainment.” He knows that if we do, we’re falling into the classic trap previous generations did of making the things the adults loved most, and the things that were “best for children,” the things that kids wanted most to avoid. And look at what happened to us.

(Thanks to Jen Robinson’s Book Page for the tip.)

Tag Reading SystemDo you remember when LeapFrog, the educational technology company, had a huge hit with the LeapPad? It’s a device that many people feel helps older preschool and early elementary aged children gain early literacy skills. The LeapPads were bought by huge numbers of parents, and many found their way into preschools and school and public libraries. LeapPad sales peaked in 2003, bringing the company $330 million that year.

Sales of LeapFrog products have sagged since then, so the company has announced the new Tag Reading System, described in this New York Times article. The Tag, successor to the LeapPad, will launch this summer; I checked on the LeapFrog site, and you won’t find it there yet.

It’s a device with a pointer like a fat pen that allows children to touch words and illustrations in the series’ books and listen to characters say those words aloud or (on the illustrations) make smart remarks. The special Tag books will be imprinted with special dots that the “pen” reads when it comes into contact with the book. Several of the books planned for the system are books we already know, such as Ian Falconer’s Olivia and two of Jane O’Connor’s Fancy Nancy series:

Ms. O’Connor, who described herself as “not a very pro-technology person,” was a skeptic at first, but has since come around.

“Sometimes it might be easier for a child who is struggling not to have a parent breathing down their neck,” she said. “You get stuck, you tap a word. The only expectation is coming from you, the kid.”

If you read the story to the end, you’ll learn that LeapFrog has set the Tag Reading System up with a critical Web component. It will recommend to parents, after they’ve reported that their child has completed certain books the company sells, other LeapFrog books or products. Hey.

Will we be seeing these in libraries? Who knows? But I wouldn’t be surprised. List price for the basic Tag Reading System will be $50; additional books will cost $14 each.

I think that the question to be asked is: Why? Do we really need a tech toy like the Tag, or the LeapPad, or any of the new Fisher-Price early literacy toys or software, to teach kids how to read? No, we don’t, but kids love novelty and parents with too little time will always want to keep their kids occupied with something “educational.” I’d prefer to give them a big box of Legos myself, to help them grow up to manipulate the world.

The “One Laptop Per Child” portable PC, otherwise known as the XO Laptop, has been out now for a month or so, and here’s a video review from Robin Ashford, an education librarian (she doesn’t reveal her institution, which I wish she would, but oh, well) in Portland, OR (my former home – hooray for PDX!). This review goes into some detail about some of the great networking features available on the XO, and has some useful information about this project and its PCs, which I hope get into the hands of many young people:

And here’s a video about using the XO as an e-book reader, with a tablet-style screen that rotates and folds over the keyboard:

The XO looks quite nice and, once folks can get past the fact that it runs an open source (meaning neither Microsoft nor Mac) operating system, it seems to work well and will serve as a very nice e-book reader. Of course, as an e-book reader it won’t lend itself to any commercially sold e-books, like those available for Amazon’s Kindle – only e-books without digital rights management software that are out of copyright, as in the huge number of downloadable e-books available through Project Gutenberg, or those available as Creative Commons works. That means that very few books for children, especially young children, will be available for the XO Laptop – although the International Children’s Digital Library will help in that regard.

We can only hope that the OLPC laptop catches on among lots of people and persuades PC manufacturers to make systems like these easily available to lots of young people in the US, as well as worldwide. Here’s a text review of the XO from the LIRX.com law-and-technology site. Looks cool.

PLUS: I should have added these links earlier – the links that tell you how you can find out more about the OLPC program and how you can donate a laptop to a child in the developing world: Here’s Laptop.org, and here’s LaptopGiving.org.

Early childhood and librariesIf you do a little searching, you’ll find all kinds of resources on the Web that will help you pass along worthwhile information to parents, caregivers, and teachers who work with kids aged five and under. Here’s one: a story from the Knoxville, TN, News Sentinel published this past September called The ABCs of early literacy. The most useful parts of the article are the sidebars on the lower left titled “Tips for reading to children” and “What children like in books,” with solid information from Amy Nachtrab of the Imagination Library program of the Knox County Public Library. But the whole article is worth pointing out to adults who care for young children.

Here’s a brief piece worth reading that’s two years old, but still current. “Teaching Your Child How to Track Helps Early Literacy” at the LiteracyNews.com site. The basic point is astoundingly simple – if you follow the words with your finger as you read aloud to your child without even saying that “these are the words you’re hearing,” many children grasp it quickly anyway, and I’ve heard from several parents through the years that their child learned how to read by following Mom’s, or Dad’s, or the babysitter’s finger, and then going back to read the story again with the words they’ve memorized. The LiteracyNews site is definitely worth a look, too.

And here’s a PDF document from the National Institute of Early Education Research that’s worth a look: “Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years.” It’s from 2006, but that doesn’t mean that it’s no longer relevant. It’s intended for early childhood educators rather than librarians, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to us, either. It stresses that there are lots of children out there in various preschool programs that come from different cultures and speak languages other than English at home, and that we need to be working hard to help those families and low-income families in general. In the public-library world, that means we need to be getting out of our libraries and building bonds with families who often aren’t comfortable in the library.

I hope there’s something here you can use.

Cover image of “Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future”If you’ve worked around children and teens as much as I have, you know that plenty of them believe they are experts in everything online. Diagnosing and solving tech problems, like a stuck laser printer? Give them 60 seconds, they say, after rolling their eyes. Searching? Sure; they can find anything. Manipulating games and music or video files? No prob.

Of course, we librarians know that kids are in no way the searching experts they claim to be, because many of them, particularly those younger than high school age, don’t have the necessary language and vocabulary skills to define search terms, to come up with synonyms for them, and to determine levels of search from the general to the specific.

There’s a new UK study just out sponsored by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, described in an article on the Ars Technica site, demonstrating this lack of youthful searching expertise. Here’s the PDF document of the report itself: it’s called “Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future.” (And the image above – which made me smile – is the cover image.)

It shows exactly what I expected it to show – that kids and teens born since 1993 talk big about their Internet abilities, or as the study says:

… 93 percent are satisfied or very satisfied with their overall experience of using a search engine (compared with 84 percent for a librarian-assisted search)

But are they that much better than we older folks? Here’s a pointed quote from the Ars Technica article:

It’s true that young people prefer interactive systems to passive ones and that they are generally competent with technology, but it’s not true that students today are “expert searchers.” In fact, the report calls this “a dangerous myth.” Knowing how to use Facebook doesn’t make one an Internet search god, and the report concludes that a literature review shows no movement (either good or bad) in young people’s information skills over the last several decades. Choosing good search terms is a special problem for younger users.

The study does point up that although the information-searching abilities of young people are about as good as they’ve ever been, young people’s confidence in their online abilities makes it more difficult for librarians to intervene in what young people do at the keyboard. In other words:

The report notes that some librarians are opening MySpace and Facebook pages, trying to make their services hipper to students, but that “there is a considerable danger that younger users will resent the library invading what they regard as their space.”

Helping Homeschoolers in the LibraryAdrienne Furness of the Webster Library in upstate New York has a blog you should check out if you’re interested in being more helpful to homeschoolers who use public libraries. When I worked, years ago, for Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, I worked with lots of homeschooling families, and I know I would have found Furness’s blog, Homeschooling and Libraries, a fellow WordPress blog, very useful. Take a look at her series on creating curriculum kits.

Furness is also the author of the just-published Helping Homeschoolers in the Library (ALA Editions, 2008).

Public libraries are Curriculum Central for many parents who homeschool their children, and I found that it’s well worth the while of any librarian who serves these parents to talk with them whenever you can to learn what they need. Yes, you can’t usually purchase the religion-based materials many homeschoolers use, but I learned quickly that plenty of your nonfiction materials will fit right into many a homeschooler’s curriculum. I also set up a monthly booktalk / book review session in which middle graders (4-6 grade kids) would meet and I’d booktalk several books I thought might interest them, and they shared books they had recently read; it was a lot of fun.

I also learned that homeschooling parents have informal (and sometimes formal) bulletin boards and newsletters that spread the word about helpful agencies and services in a community, and I discovered that when the word gets out to a community about a helpful librarian who’s sympathetic to homeschooling, you’ll begin receiving visits from parents and kids you might not have seen hanging around the place before.

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