Children & technology

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?

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?

Optenet, an Internet security company, says in a recent report (it’s a PDF) that as of this year, 36.21 percent of all Web sites contain pornography. Online shopping, by contrast, only makes up 10.5 percent of the sites.

Can this really be true? These days, I so rarely encounter a porn site as I’m zipping around the Net – and this was not the case, say, eight or ten years ago – that it hardly seems as if it could be a real statistic. But who knows? I look at the screens of kids and teens using PCs in the branch where I work, and I see, almost exclusively, either games or pages from social network sites in which they’re looking at very non-pornographic photos of friends grinning at each other from their cell phones, doing teenage kinds of things. Am I missing something? Are they zipping immediately to porn when I walk away?

Perhaps in these days of hefty filtering in libraries, especially on PCs that kids and teens use, this immense group of sites are filtered away. And I’ll ignore the fact that Optenet specializes in keeping these kinds of sites filtered away. But if true, that percentage could tell us something about human nature that many folks don’t want to hear. Don’t you think?

If you’ve been a librarian for more than a couple of years, you probably have memories connected to cassette tapes – circulating those book ‘n’ tape combinations; practicing your storytime songs or puppet shows or storytelling; or learning songs in your car on the way to work.

But those days are mostly over, and the cassette tape will soon join its brother, the 8-track, and its cousins, the 5 1/4 and 3 1/2-inch floppy disks and the VCR cassette, in the Misty Never-Never Land of Obsolete Technologies. This New York Times story, “Say So Long to an Old Companion… Cassette Tapes,” reminds us of what’s passing. It reflects on the things that made cassettes special, right to the end:

While the cassette was dumped long ago by the music industry, it has lived on among publishers of audio books. Many people prefer cassettes because they make it easy to pick up in the same place where the listener left off, or to rewind in case a certain sentence is missed….

Cassettes have limped along for some time, partly because of their usefulness in recording conversations or making a tape of favorite songs, say, for a girlfriend. But sales of portable tape players, which peaked at 18 million in 1994, sank to 480,000 in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The group predicts that sales will taper to 86,000 in 2012.

That’s the end of the line for cassettes, but can you guess where cassettes hung on longer than anywhere else? In libraries, of course. Libraries accept and give up technologies reluctantly (why do you think it took libraries 12 years or so to get into video gaming?), and this story reminds us how perfect cassettes have always been for one important kind of library material:

…for audio books, the cassette is an oddly elegant medium: you can eject it from your car, carry it home and stick it in a boombox, and it will pick up in the same place, an analog feat beyond the ability of the CD.

In the 80s and 90s I spent a lot of time on the children’s room reference desk putting boys (and girls, but mostly boys) who were reluctant readers together with an unabridged cassette copy of books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe along with the book itself. “Have them read the book while they’re listening to the tape,” I’d tell their moms, and many of those moms came back, smiling and saying, “He read the whole book! Do you have any more of those tapes?”

Now those books are all on CD, and soon they’ll all be downloadable. I certainly don’t feel as if future generations will lose much by never having experienced the cassette. But I will miss them – I remember, as the article mentions, making mix tapes of favorite songs for girlfriends, and practicing lines for my puppet programs on cassettes. I also remember all those times my old cassette player pulled the tape out of the cassette (I had a car player that especially used to do that), and I’d have to eject that jumbled mess of tape carefully and wind it back into the cassette with my fingernail.

Do you remember doing that? Digital files aren’t quite the same…

Here’s a great New York Times article that every librarian who works with people under 18 should read: “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” by Motoko Rich. It deals with some critical issues that only a few scholars are looking at seriously – namely, is the reading that people do online fundamentally different from the kind of reading they do in a print book or magazine? And if so, how is it different?

Rich describes the ways people read online as often not having a clear beginning or end. Online readers skip and zip around – click, click, click – far more, and less thoughtfully, than print readers do, and leave one online message via a link without finishing it, often never to return. And most younger Web readers accept such leaping from text fragment to text fragment as the normal way to read online. The story also says:

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.

And we all know that young people, even when reading sizable chunks of text, are also, as Rich mentions, seamlessly “reading” graphs, illustrations, anime, YouTube clips, and a huge mishmash of varied media. This isn’t the same as sitting in a chair or under a tree reading Charlotte’s Web or War and Peace. Can we really compare online reading to the traditional method of sitting with one’s attention focused on one format – plain old text – told by one storyteller, or one argument by a nonfiction author, without being turned aside? Is the ability to shift rapidly, not just from point of view to point of view, but also from text to animation to podcast, a more powerful skill than the ability to remain focused on a task for an extended period of time?

No one is certain yet what this massive change means, since Net literacy as we conceive of it now is only about ten years old. Educators are struggling to define exactly what “Net literacy” is, and how it will affect the way in which young people will learn the things they need to know to function in this century. Here’s a quote from the story that, depending on how progressive or conservative we are, will either stir our hearts or roll our eyes. Or maybe a little of both:

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”

Is McCullough correct any longer? I wonder, since so much of what we used to look up in dictionaries or encyclopedias we now find online (note the links in this quote, for example). So many of the facts we need to gather to write an essay or understand a concept are scattered like sesame seeds all over the Net, yet can be scooped up really quickly, thanks to Google. But are those scattered facts correct? Are they from a worthwhile source?

It’s the other kinds of literacy skills – the “boring” skills such as the abilities to focus, to evaluate, and to make informed judgments – that the coolness and speed of the Internet often fool young people into thinking they fully grasp or don’t especially need. Sometimes a human teacher – often armed with print books – can be a better way to gain the talents all thinking people must have.

When kids play, they use their imaginations. When kids watch a video screen, they’re hypnotized and use less of their imaginations, receiving everything passively. So it’s kind of scary to read a report in USAToday about a study from Daniel Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who monitored how toddlers behaved when Jeopardy – a show that presumably offers toddlers little that interests them – was on a television set in the room.

The article says:

Perhaps most significant: When the TV was on, kids of all ages played with a given toy — a jack-in-the-box, a baby doll, blocks, a toy telephone, a school bus with toy passengers — for about 30 seconds, on average. Without TV, it was 60 seconds.

This may not seem significant, but when a TV is on in the room with young children, it means that children’s attention spans are broken up, and kids are engaging in less, and more fragmented, imaginative play.

I’m concerned that as kids grow older and become more and more fixated on screens – in particular, the Net and video games – they use less and less of their imaginations and let their brains fall under the direction of Web designers and game designers. Is this okay? I dunno, but somehow I doubt it. How much time are the children visiting your library spending in front of screens, or checking out items they’ll see on screens?

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