October 2008


Back when PCs first became really popular in the pre-Web days of the late 80s and early 90s, I kept reading (in paper books, magazines, and newspapers, of course) about how “paperless” society was going to become. If you were working in a library then, you probably remember how the coming of e-mail actually generated more paper than ever. Since digital files were prone to crash and disappear, if something was important, you’d print it out. We printed out everything, it seemed.

But in 2008, things are really changing. The pile of paper seems to be growing smaller. One of the biggest changes appears to be that newspapers and many magazines (especially news magazines) are shrinking, and that so many more of the things we read are on screens. This article from the New York Times, “Mourning Old Media’s Decline,” pretty much tells the story. The Christian Science Monitor, which every library I’ve ever worked in has carried, will no longer publish on paper. Time, Inc., and several newspaper publishers, are laying off lots of their staffs.

And you no doubt also saw that Google has settled with the authors and publishers who sued the company over its plans to make the content of the thousands of books they scanned from collections of big research libraries available to everyone… who’s willing to pay for the privilege. (Of course, Google plans to make access to the database available to schools and libraries as a subscription.)

I guess these changes are a good thing – we’ll be using a lot less paper. But what will a move away from reading things on paper mean for libraries? My thoughts:

We’re heading toward not owning the materials that people will read, watch, or listen to. Libraries will probably subscribe to media services that allow users to log in and read articles, watch films on their laptops or their big screen TVs, and listen to audio books and music just about anywhere. I still believe that lots of adults and children will continue reading paper fiction books for entertainment, but I think that “useful” books – textbooks, DIY guides, and most other nonfiction – will slowly vanish behind the digital sun, particularly as my own generation, the boomers, passes on. Newspapers and magazines will definitely move on to digital-land as soon as most people take up Internet phones and/or e-paper devices that let those publications be beamed to their readers.

What will be the place of libraries in this kind of publishing environment? I’m willing to bet that most people won’t want to pay for digital subscriptions any more than they do now, and that they’ll still be willing to visit libraries, whether 3-D or digital. But I think that if we keep working hard at stressing the importance of literacy, and our role in promoting it, that we can remain strong as… well… “literacy & fun” centers (I’m trying to think of a better term, but I haven’t yet).

I mean storytimes; storytelling; puppetry; read-alouds. You know.

Young children, especially, will always want someone to read, and, sing, and tell, and perform for them, and so will their families. Who else but us library folk will do this stuff without charging for it, and help make the printed word exciting?

This New York Times article, “Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers,” by Motoko Rich, intimates, at least to me, that media companies are now headed down that road that leads to a largely bookless future.

Here’s the kernel of its message:

Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading.

Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

It tells about several about-to-be-published, or just-published, books that tie in with video games, such as Scholastic’s “Maze of Bones” series.

Rich touches on the core question that has not yet been answered, namely, do video games, even if they include print, promote the kind of literacy that encourages young people to read printed books? While there are plenty of tech folks who promote computer literacy as a skill that fits right into print literacy, others say that the two have little to do with each other and that while a young person may spend hours or weeks trying to master a game’s minutiae, almost none of a video game’s skills carry over into the very different experience of getting lost in a book.

Reading this article, I could picture it all in my mind: Wait until we baby-boomers all kick the bucket (in 2058? or 2060?), and books will have been well along the way to dying. By 2020, they’ll all have been replaced for younger people by videogame/film/holographic worlds (and if you don’t think holographic TV is coming, read this) that folks can control and manipulate. A few retro folks of the upcoming generations will gravitate to books, but they’ll be seen in, say, 2068, as we see 78-rpm record collectors now – quaint. And maybe e-book readers will finally be cheap and truly functional by then. So, by the 2050s, or earlier, enjoying reading a printed book may be no longer relevant, since everyone will get their entertainment and information electronically.

Am I wrong? I hope I am. Should I care? As a booklover, it’ll be hard to watch. I wish I could be around to see what’s going to happen in 2068. Will there still be libraries by then?

I’ve been enjoying the discussion going on over at the SLJ Web site about how the Newbery medal winners have, since the 1990s, become, mmm, odd and hard to sell to kids. Here’s the article by Anita Silvey, which frankly surprises me, called “Has the Newbery lost its way?” (Silvey, a long-time editor, should know what the Newbery’s about.) And here’s a response (yes!) from Nina Lindsay, “The Newbery remembers its way, or ‘Gee, thanks, Mr. Sachar.'”

Here’s a sample from Silvey’s piece:

School librarians say they simply don’t have enough money to spend on books that kids won’t find interesting—and in their opinion, that category includes most of this century’s Newbery winners. Cash-strapped teachers, who spend part of their paychecks on paper, pencils, and other classroom essentials, say they can’t afford to buy any books. But the only recent winners they enjoy teaching are Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999), A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001), and The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003).

I usually stay away from literature issues, because there are so many other people ready to hash them out. But I did want to comment here because so many people involved in this discussion (both Silvey & those making “Right on!” comments) don’t seem to understand what the Newbery’s for or how it’s – mistakenly – used.

The Newbery Medal is supposed to be for a truly excellent book for children, NOT for a really appealing book for all, or for the huge majority of, children. Traditionally, just about every school and public library buys it because it’s supposed to be the best. But many teachers and many librarians appear to wish that it was for the best children’s book that appeals to lots and lots of kids the way that the Captain Underpants books or the Magic Treehouse books do. They want a book they can sell to lots and lots of kids, many of whom are reluctant readers in this Net-&-video-game era. But the award doesn’t work that way.

Often the “best” book, the kind that Silvey disses, only appeals to what we librarians often call the “special reader” – the child with deeper senses of taste or perception who you suspect will grow up and become a teacher, a librarian, an artist, or a writer. There aren’t that many kids like that in most schools. Lindsay doesn’t really discuss the need for a Newbery-sorta-award that deals with 4th-to-6th-grade books. But I really think we need one. These are the ages when many kids, the kids who frequently grow up to become computer technicians, or business managers, or mechanics, abandon reading fiction because they don’t see why reading it is worthwhile, and when we need to be working really hard to keep kids reading.

And another problem is that the “best” books that are chosen for the NM are often seventh- and eighth-grade level, and there are tons of teachers in the fourth through sixth grades – many of whose students are reluctant readers to begin with – who assign reading the Newbery winner to their children. Does this sound doomed to failure? It does to me.

We should not be assigning whole classes to read each year’s Newbery book. What many of us (including me) want instead are books that will get kids, especially the reluctant readers among them, excited about reading. The average kid out there needs to experience how reading can be just as absorbing as playing a videogame or watching a DVD. I’ve been suggesting something totally different for years. I think we need a new award for teachers to assign that looks for the best of books that appeal to the average kid – an award for non-arty, non-deep, but just plain fun and exciting books that don’t have big marketing budgets.

(Oh, and so I don’t get into legal trouble, all rights to the Newbery Medal image belong to ALSC, a division of ALA!)