December 2008

readius1A few days ago, The New York Times ran another story about big-time changes in book publishing, called “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It.” Its author, David Streitfeld, says that both publishers and bookstores – and among the bookstores, both independents and chains – are not doing well in the current shriveled-up economy:

Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Is this only a blip in bad economic times, or is it the beginning of the end for books as we’ve known them in the past? Streitfeld says that the economy has little to do with it; it’s the fault of all of us Internet-savvy buyers, who hunt for the best book deals online from places like Amazon and skip local bookstores. Then we resell the books or give them away as gifts when we’re through with them, further cutting into book sales. I’m not so sure this is the primary reason for the apparent “end of the paper book.” Many of us readers are simply spending way more time with our electronics.

And of course, people continue getting books, “free,” from libraries. ALA keeps telling people that the number of folks using libraries is higher than ever – although if what I see in the branch of the Austin Public Library where I work, which serves a middle-middle-class clientele is any indication, when you add together the number of DVDs in circulation to the number of books on CD that go through the door every day, they leave the building in about equal numbers compared to books with covers and pages. This goes for both adult and children’s materials. People working in branches that serve lower-income folks have told me that if they weren’t circulating DVDs and CDs, they’d barely circulate anything at all.

What does this mean for the future of books, and the future of libraries? It’s pretty clear that society at large continues spending more time with electronic media, which I guess makes me feel optimistic that the proportion of library budgets going to media – DVDs and books on CD especially – continues to grow.

But I wonder how libraries will deal with the growth of the all-purpose device that is coming to dominate the lives of more of us – the Internet phone. Here’s the Pew Internet and American Life project’s new study, “The Future of the Internet III.” As in its previous versions, the study focuses on several main possibilities as to what the Net will be like in 2020, soliciting votes from Internet experts on whether those possibilities will actually happen.

Here’s the first few lines of one such possibility, “The Evolution of Mobile Internet Communications”:

The mobile phone is the primary connection tool for most people in the world. In 2020, while “one laptop per child” and other initiatives to bring networked digital communications to everyone are successful on many levels, the mobile phone—now with significant computing power—is the primary Internet connection and the only one for a majority of the people across the world, providing information in a portable, well-connected form at a relatively low price.

Seventy-seven percent of the experts interviewed agreed this would probably be reality in 2020, and although I’m far from an expert, I agree, too. We’re much more likely to be reading books from a mobile phone than from specialized e-book-reader devices like the “Readius,” above. If Internet phones become the unquestioned kings of communication in a manner far beyond their role right now (which implies that laptops and other PCs will be well on their way to obsolescence by then), I’m wondering how libraries will deal.

Downloadable movies, audiobooks, and books? Yes, yes, and despite what I said at the beginning, yes. I don’t think books, whether for adults or kids, will die that easily.


librThe American Library Association’s Washington Office released to the library community this month a document it created for the Obama-Biden Transition Team: “Opening the ‘Window to a Larger World’: Libraries’ Role in Changing America.” (This link goes to a PDF of the report.) The document hits all the main points that concern us library folks: copyright, privacy, LSTA funding, and, of particular interest to me, literacy.

It begins by telling its readers, as ALA has been telling people in almost every communication with non-librarians that it publishes, and in bold type, too, “Americans are using libraries now more than ever.” I’m not certain how well it, or we library folks in general, are convincing the rest of the world that this claim is true, but it bears repeating. It also does its best to clearly state, below, in the broadest sense, what librarians do and why they’re important, and tie those things to some of the president-elect’s stated aims:

Librarians take very seriously their responsibility to serve as guardians for the public in assuring access to the most trusted, unbiased information. The ALA is ready to work with the new Administration to see President-elect Obama’s commitments to openness, transparency and equity fully realized. Libraries and librarians are critical resources for meeting these goals.

Getting into specific issues, the paper ticks off all those things on many librarians’ wish lists – things like:

* Get libraries/librarians involved in the expansion of broadband access to all parts of the country;

* Get federal agents off librarians’ backs by redoing the Patriot Act and similar laws when it comes to the privacy of library records;

* Include school libraries and school librarians in education mandates (as we all know, a major failure of George W’s “No Child Left Behind” law), and

* Enhance libraries’ abilities to participate in “e-government” – communicating with government agencies and doing government business through the Net, especially for lower-income folks without Net access.

There’s a section called “Safe computing and children,” which can be boiled down to the two first lines, and continues the ALA tradition of opposing filtering. But it’s pretty clear that filtering is here to stay in most libraries; the section’s gentler language, compared with the way these ideas were expressed during the filtering fights of earlier years, acknowledges that it’s a fight ALA has lost:

* Support legislation and fund programs that include Internet safety education, as opposed to Internet blocking and filtering;

* Emphasize the importance of parental involvement in Internet training and safety[…]

But the section of most interest to me, and the one I feel has the most chance of becoming reality, is called, “Literacy and Lifelong Learning.” You may be aware, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, that Obama was early on converted to the need to support early childhood education and pre-literacy skills, particularly for lower-income children. These kids often don’t get the kind of language stimulation – in particular, print language stimulation and a wider vocabulary – that kids from families with middle or higher incomes do.

We still have a huge way to go in convincing the general public that libraries indeed have a role to play in helping children of all income levels gain a love and appreciation of print in all its forms. Here are a couple of the points from the document, which also emphasizes the role of libraries in aiding low-literacy adults:

* Promote partnerships between early childhood literacy programs and libraries; emphasize the contribution these literacy programs provide to aid in a child’s intellectual development;

* Promote and articulate the important role libraries serve in literacy efforts, including how libraries provide access to early learning activities for language acquisition and other learning and literacy skills for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families;

* Create a Presidential Early Learning Council, as envisioned by President-elect Obama, to encourage necessary dialogue among programs at the federal, state and local levels;

* Include librarians as full participants in this learning council and other literacy advisory groups [Here’s a major big deal, if there’s any way it could happen; typically, educators involved with these types of programs don’t even consider librarians worthy of joining such a team];

* Encourage private and nonprofit sectors to collect and disseminate the most valid and up-to-date research on early learning and highlight best practices and model programs at the state and local level [with the notion, I suppose, that programs involving libraries would be included];

* Review all types of federally supported literacy programs and assure appropriate planning and budgeting to support high school students and adult literacy;

* Require community partnerships between local literacy programs and local public libraries within adult literacy programs [see above, as libraries aren’t usually given consideration here, either];

* Broadly promote and emphasize the need for literacy programs and the “right to read”; through public awareness programs, encourage those needing literacy training to use every opportunity; promote literacy as an important tool to obtain employment, gain formal and informal education and to participate in the full breadth of life’s activities;

* Promote literacy programs as a tool for “hope.” [Hmm – is this different than regular hope, the kind without the quotation marks?]

I’m glad to see this document out there. But will it really make any difference? I dunno. With all the horrible pressures of the battered economy and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan getting most of the attention – and with most of the attention regarding education going to the schools and classroom teachers – will there be even a micron of space to squeeze libraries into the spotlight? I’m old and cynical enough to wonder.

Amazon's Kindle e-book reader

Amazon's Kindle e-book reader

I’m still skeptical about their long-term prospects. But Sony and Amazon, makers of the Reader and Kindle e-book devices, claim that their sales are booming. It appears, at least if you believe Sony and Amazon, that e-books are finally (finally! after nearly 10 years of waiting) taking off. Here’s a quote from the New York Times article, “More Readers Are Picking Up Electronic Books,” that gives a nice overview of the state of e-book readers at the end of 2008:

For a decade, consumers mostly ignored electronic book devices, which were often hard to use and offered few popular items to read. But this year, in part because of the popularity of’s wireless Kindle device, the e-book has started to take hold.

The $359 Kindle, which is slim, white and about the size of a trade paperback, was introduced a year ago. Although Amazon will not disclose sales figures, the Kindle has at least lived up to its name by creating broad interest in electronic books. Now it is out of stock and unavailable until February. Analysts credit Oprah Winfrey, who praised the Kindle on her talk show in October.

Sony claims that it has sold about 300,000 of its $400 Reader devices. And publishers are claiming that sales of their e-titles have grown from 1 percent to 2 or 3 percent in the past year. Woo-hoo. But, seriously, does this mean that e-books are actually on the brink of success?

I’m still not convinced that e-book readers will hit the big time until costs of the devices come way down. Why pay $350 or more for a device that holds books you have to buy for $20 or so? These are books with all kinds of protections plastered on them, ones that you could buy in 3-D paper format, at a discount, for $20 or less, and then give to friends or resell? You can’t do anything with a Kindle or Reader book after you’ve finished it. I don’t think that the devices offer $350 or $400 worth of extra features.

The article also says that the Kindle is “most popular among 55- to 64-year-olds.” If we boomers are the ones who find it most appealing (of course, we’re also the ones most likely to have the cash to buy an e-book reader device), that doesn’t bode well for their future, I think. It’s younger users that power a technological fad.

But maybe all will change when the prices for the readers come down. Hey, Amazon and Sony, where are the e-book reader devices that cost under $300 and have more cool features that appeal to the gaming generation?

obamaThere’s a great article in the New York Times, “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Childhood Education,” about what we can look forward to in the new Administration when it comes to the education of preschool kids. I listened closely to what Barack Obama said about education all through the Presidential campaign, and he almost always, in his speeches and debates, singled out preschoolers for special mention.

George W’s “No Child Left Behind” law basically acted as if preschoolers weren’t there. But that, I hope, is about to change. And will libraries have a role to play? Geez, I hope so – but probably not unless we library folks are out there with cymbals and kazoos, making a racket.

Obama wants to get programs such as Early Head Start, which Bill Clinton started up in 1994, better funded and taking a more critical role. But early childhood education in the U.S. is a nationwide mishmash. The article describes it:

“It’s a patchwork quilt, a tossed salad, a nonsystem,” said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a group that presses for universal, publicly financed prekindergarten.

There are federal and state, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit programs. Some unfold in public school classrooms, others in storefront day care centers, churches or Y.M.C.A.’s, and still others in tiny centers run out of private homes.

“California has 22 different funding streams for child care and preschool, and that mirrors the crazy labyrinth of funding sources coming out of Washington,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is the author of “Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education.”

ALA, ALSC, and PLA (the American Library Association, the Association for Library Services for Children, and the Public Library Association) began their big “Every Child Ready to Read” program in public libraries partly because early childhood programs were fragmented and disorganized, and someone needed to step up and offer parents everywhere a great pre-literacy resource in every community’s library.

There are tons more baby times, toddler times, and other pre-literacy-oriented programs going on in libraries nationwide than there were ten years ago – and I say, hooray!

But do you see the national press recognizing what public libraries do for young children? Um, no; not really. Do you see any mention of libraries in this NY Times article? I don’t.

What does this mean? It means that we have to make certain that people (parents, teachers, program directors, just plain folks) know more about how public library programs and materials can help prepare young children for school, for the working world, and for their lives.

Obama cited in his platform a famous study (at least famous among early childhood education advocates) about the value of spending government funds to support education (including pre-literacy education) for young lower-income kids, who need it the most:

One much-cited study is of a preschool program that offered high-quality services to a few dozen black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s at a two-year cost per child of about $15,000. The study found that the investment, 40 years later, had rendered economic returns to society of some $244,000 per child, much of that in savings from reduced criminal activity. Critics have challenged the findings, in part because of the small number of children involved.

Mr. Obama’s platform accepts the broad logic of the Ypsilanti study. “For every one dollar invested in high-quality, comprehensive programs supporting children and families from birth,” the platform says, “there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system and better health.”

I hope this will be an exciting time for those who work with young children in libraries, but it won’t be unless we make noise. We librarians need to insist on expanding our role. So offer people in early childhood programs the library’s assistance. Pay visits to preschools, Head Starts, and child care centers. Put up signs in the library. We can grab a big opportunity if we work hard for it.

henryGet back to it and just do it – know what I mean? Hey folks – I know I went AWOL for a while. I needed a break, plus there’s been plenty happening in my 3-D life. But it was time, I realized, to either fold up this blog or to get busy and post, and I’m not ready to quit yet. I’m going to do my best to post stuff on a more regular basis, and I’ve been working hard on my ukulele playing, so I hope to have more uke materials to share soon.

Thanks, W (the Monkey)