Children & technology

Back in the 90s, I was heavily involved in the idea that one way librarians could find their new role in the new century was by creating directories of great Web sites. I was one of the members of the ALA/ALSC committee that created the Great Web Sites for Kids in 1997.

We worked very hard setting policies for how this directory would work, and carefully composed the page of Great Web Sites for Kids Selection Criteria. Why? Because we were hoping that libraries nationwide would use it as a model and create and promote similar sites of their own. The logic we used went something like this: Libraries select and organize books. They select and organize recordings, magazines, and other media.

We felt that the Web was the ultimate disorganized mess o’media. Since we’re now bringing the Internet into libraries, we said, why not establish selection criteria and best practices for how to present and recommend the best Web sites for young users? We felt that, just as we used the exact titles of books on our catalog records, that we should use both the title of the site that appeared in the title bar (i.e., the <title> ) and the full Web address in each description.

Plus, you need to remember that this period was when conservative talk radio was going on about how harmful the unmediated Internet could be for children, with all those porn photos popping up unexpectedly. We wanted to create a directory that concerned parents could use to find thoroughly vetted sites that were age-appropriate.

It seemed like a good, forward-thinking idea at the time. But it failed, because Google just became too good. It required less effort than any directory or other search tool, and overwhelmed everything else.

The Great Web Sites remains a useful list for librarians and educators, and an ALSC committee keeps it up and going nicely. Several public libraries have also created some very good collections of Web sites for use by kids and teens. Although a good number of libraries have produced good kids’ Web directories, here are the ones I think are best – the New York City area libraries’ homeworkNYC and Multnomah County (OR) Library’s Homework Center. And do you remember KidsClick, which began at New York State’s Ramapo Catskill Library System?

All of these were created by collecting the assignments that kids most often received, and librarians researching the sites that met those assignments’ needs. They’re kept up, and are definitely worth linking to.

But after the 90s ended and the 00s began, it grew clear that Google had developed into a finely honed enough tool that kids learned quickly that they could find a site or two with the answers to almost all their homework questions. Sometimes the sites weren’t authoritative, but the kids – and all too often their teachers – seemed willing enough to accept just about anything they found on Google. The need for carefully vetted directories no longer seemed necessary, so these directories aren’t used anywhere near as much as they deserve to be used.

And lots of young people, teachers, and parents don’t know about them. We librarians have never done a good job of publicizing what we offer online – partly because we just don’t have the kind of cash it takes to compete with big commercial enterprises, but also because librarians tend not to make much noise. How many of your users know about your magazine and newspaper databases? Not all that many, I’ll bet, and it’s the same for these homework sites.

Those days are pretty much done, since it’s hard for a tax-funded library to compete against Google. But I’ll never regret the many hours I spent – and the many more hours that other librarians I know spent – on compiling these sites in the hope that libraries could take a more active role in creating a “collection” of Web sites for young people.

(Why am I writing about this? I just looked at a page called 100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of. It’s a curious convocation of sites for children and adults – some of them now out of date and others a little bizarre – but jeez, it took me back… )


This morning I visited LISNews and found a post, “The future of libraries – no MLS needed?” written by Christopher Kiess, an Ohio hospital librarian. Kiess speculates whether the nature of library work, public library work in particular, has changed so significantly that the MLS degree won’t be seen as important for work in a library much longer.

Here’s his core argument:

The library is becoming less and less of an entity requiring an MLS degreed person to manage it. As cataloging becomes outsourced, clerks become prevalent and we see a variety of other disciplines working in a library, the MLS becomes devalued. I had a respected colleague suggest to me not too long ago that a public library requires an MBA more than an MLS. I would agree. What is at issue here is the skill set of the librarian and that is a central factor in whether we can save our profession.

Kiess says that as long as people in the Google era conceive of the major function of a librarian as helping people find books, CDs, or DVDs on the shelf – even if it’s the “right” book, or CD, or DVD – they’re not seeing us as much different from the non-MLS’ed clerks at Borders. The difference comes in the full variety of services we provide. Librarians who serve youth can make the argument that because libraries are about literacy, and that because we are trained in the ages and stages of literacy, we can offer advice and counseling to parents, teachers, and children that goes beyond what a bookstore clerk can provide.

In the 21st century, every child needs to know how to read well to be successful. The pressure on our schools to make all children literate will only grow as the years pass, and libraries play an essential supporting role, even when the Net seems to have stolen away much of our old “homework-support” function. We’re the ones leading the way in setting babies, toddlers, and preschoolers on that road, and we support kids’ reading through the summers. (And – see below – gaming may increase our future role with teens.) I think the argument will, in the long run, be tougher to prove for librarians working with adults.

That means, of course, that we all need to be making noise. We need to be offering programming that pulls literacy together with the materials in our collections. Youth librarians need to be offering “literacy counseling” to parents who come in and ask us questions about the best materials for their children. We need to be more than the greeters that some public libraries seem to be moving their staff toward.

Oh – and here’s a great piece of news that’s exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen. I’ve crabbed a bit in the past about why we’re doing so many gaming programs in libraries for teens, when the relationship between gaming and literacy isn’t – at least for my curmudgeonly self – clear. Here’s an ALA press release announcing that the Verizon Foundation has awarded ALA a $1 million (!) grant to develop best practices for gaming activities in libraries. Here’s what it says:

“Gaming is a magnet that attracts library users of all types and, beyond its entertainment value, has proven to be a powerful tool for literacy and learning,” said ALA President Loriene Roy. “Through the Verizon Foundation’s gift, ALA’s gaming for learning project will provide the library community with vital information and resources that will model and help sustain effective gaming programs and services.”

I hope we do get some good ideas and programs out of this grant. Anything that builds the link between literacy and libraries in the collective mind of the public is exactly what we need to demonstrate that librarians do essential, professional-level work.

Here’s a post titled, “Are books history?” on the InfoWorld blog by Sean McCown; while it sounds as if he’s crowing for the triumph of e-books, I think he’s really asking, “Are tech books history?” And to that I say, “Hooray!”

McCown makes software and Net training videos, and he’s been seeing more and more requests for video podcasts that allow people who need to learn tech procedures to learn them quickly and easily. He says:

Let’s face it. With podcasts becoming more ubiquitous in IT, and with screencasts (like with Camtasia) becoming more and more engaging and popular, do we really need books anymore? Wouldn’t you rather learn by watching someone actually DO it?

What I think he means is: “Do we need those big fat tree-killer computer manuals any more?” The answer, of course, is “no way.” How many of those big fat phonebooks that train people in Macromedia Dreamweaver or Windows 98 or other out-of-date software do you still have on your shelves? Macromedia, of course, has not existed for a while – Adobe bought the company in 2005 – and of course, Windows 98 was about three operating systems ago.

But lots of libraries keep those big bricks of books on their 000 shelves just in case someone wants them – which they almost never do. I just weeded our software shelves and threw these books out, but I’ll bet plenty of other libraries still own them.

Computer books and printed instructions were inferior to seeing someone fix your tech problem from day one; we only used them back in 1995 or 1998 because there was nothing better or more reliable back then when we had to solve a problem on our own. And, of course, lots of kids never read them at all to begin with – or watched the videos, either; they just waded in and solved the mysteries of a new piece of software by trial and error.

I, for one, will be glad when we no longer need to buy or own those fat computer books that go stale so quickly, but sometimes (like when your Net connection goes out and you must get back online) they can be lifesavers. Videos, if they’re well-made, are much more effective than print for things that can be recorded and can demonstrate, step by step, how to operate your PC and use your software. But, unless I’ve misread his point here, it sounds as if McCown has carried on to suggest that books (I mean books in general) are on their way out because a tech-instruction video is better than a few pages in an elephantine computer manual.

Actually, I don’t think he has; but I can’t help, simply from the way he wrote the piece, daring McCown to create a video that discusses in detail the arguments between Darwinists and creationists on the kind of budget most tech trainers have. Or to describe for us on video the political forces at play in the years leading up to World War II. Or to read us a full-length novel. For the moment, there are things that print still does a whole lot better than video.

Jazz by Walter Dean MyersIt’s hard to find much time to blog while you’re running around ALA Annual, but I did want to post a couple of things I heard in sessions. Last night I went to the Odyssey Awards program that Booklist puts on to honor youth audiobooks. The winner was Live Oak Media’s version of Walter Dean Myers’ Jazz. Children’s author and audiobook producer Bruce Coville was pretty funny giving us a mini-history of kids’ audiobooks.

He told us how American educators have long been of two minds about audiobooks, because Americans expect kids to be working hard to get their literature, and listening to an audiobook seems kind of, well, cheating, especially now in the era of No Child Left Behind: “Teachers and librarians ask, ‘Is that child suffering enough? Working hard enough?’ Teachers are being told not to read aloud so much these days.” Coville, on the other hand, wants families to listen to books read aloud, and it sets his teeth on edge when kids are constantly watching DVDs in the back seat: “Every time I see a family going down the road with a damned DVD player in the car,” he said, “I know it’s wrong.”

Instead, Coville pushes hard for us to listen together: “Every great teacher knows the story is the most important thing. We’re a vast and diverse culture in the US, in danger of flying apart at the seams. Stories help us understand each other, and audiobooks are a way to get more stories in our lives.”

He also joked about his experiences driving across the country with his then-14-year-old daughter, saying “when you’re driving through Kansas, I learned that Pride and Prejudice is riveting.”

Today I attended several sessions, but the one that sticks in my mind the most is the one about Maricopa County (AZ) Library’s Dewey-less branch library. Instead of “973.2,” the label on a book’s spine says simply “History.” During the questions, one librarian sounded a little hot under the collar when he asked why the library couldn’t simply put the Dewey labels on the books and put them into a section marked “history,” but the librarians from Maricopa County replied that their users didn’t know Dewey and didn’t understand Dewey.

The feeling I got was that in the era of Google, Dewey wasn’t necessary any more. If people came to the library and were looking for a subject for an assignment, they’d find it more easily in a face-out display of newer, shinier, subject-related books. They say it works for them. The name of the session, by the way, was “Dewey or Don’t We?”

One Laptop Per Child classroomIn a recent Slate article, “The $100 Distraction Device,” Ray Fisman writes about a study conducted in Romania in which lower-income families were offered vouchers for free PCs for their children. The goals, of course, were to get these kids studying harder and more efficiently. But the results show what you might suspect – that yeah, these kids watched less TV. But they also slept less and did less homework.

Guess what they were doing instead?

Every study I’ve seen about low-income kids, games, and computers suggests the same things. It’s parental guidance that makes all the difference, and the poorer a family is, the less likely that parents encourage their kids to develop good study habits and limit their access to games and other amusing Net stuff.

That’s not always true – I worked with several groups of poor Latino families in New York City Head Starts with moms who were adamant about giving their kids good study habits. They asked lots of questions about ways to improve their children’s reading readiness and were hungry for the answers. But there were lots of other families I knew I’d never see, without a clue about helping their kids do well in school. Fisman compares the kinds of parents who choose to buy their kids PCs vs. those parents who, as in this case, were given free-computer coupons randomly:

Parents who buy computers tend to place more value on education—they’re also more likely to live in good school districts, pay for extra math classes, and generally provide a richer learning environment for their kids than parents who don’t buy computers.

Fisman remembers how involved his parents were when he got a computer growing up. He describes them as “education-obsessed” – the kind of parents we commonly see in libraries serving striving immigrants and/or upper-middle-income families. But both parents in lots of poor families are working long hours and their kids are often free to do as they like:

… my parents stepped in to make sure Space Invaders didn’t crowd out homework. Where were Romania’s parents? The voucher program was specifically designed to help poor households, and their dire financial circumstances meant that these families were probably less able to afford after-school care or otherwise see to it that the computers were used for learning and not just recreation. Indeed, the authors found that when they looked specifically at families with stay-at-home moms who may be more present and able to police computer use, the negative effects of vouchers were greatly reduced.

When I worked in New York City public libraries, almost all the kids competing for slots at the PCs were non-white and/or non-Anglo. In Austin, it’s the same. I’m willing to bet – although I’ve never been so crass as to ask – that their families are poor. The better-off kids can go home and have a fast Net connection waiting for them. Lots of the poorer kids must come to the library for one.

It’s not an easy job, but we folks in libraries serving lower-income families need to do what we can, when we can, to help parents and kids see the importance of holding off on the Mario Kart or the Nickelodeon Web site until after the homework’s done. And I’m hoping that the countries in the developing world that are providing the One Laptop Per Child computers to families with subsistence incomes are also training the parents to keep those games switched off until the homework’s done.

Henry & library booksTake a look at this new Scholastic-funded study described on CNNMoney, which I heartily endorse because (hooray) it verifies something I’ve known for a long time. It says that “75% of kids age 5-17 agree with the statement, ‘No matter what I can do online, I’ll always want to read books printed on paper…'”

We library folks know this, and we always have. We see kids checking out books every day. But I don’t think the average American who doesn’t spend his or her day around kids sees it quite as clearly. What I find especially interesting are these core findings:

One in four kids age 5-17 say they read books for fun every day and more than half of kids say they read books for fun at least two to three times a week. One of the key reasons kids say they don’t read more often is that they have trouble finding books they like — a challenge that parents underestimate. Kids who struggle to find books they like are far less likely to read for fun daily or even twice a week.

The 2008 Kids & Family Reading Report also found that parents have a strong influence over kids’ reading. They overwhelmingly view reading as the most important skill a child needs to develop, but only about half of all parents begin reading to their child before their first birthday. The percent of children who are read to every day drops from 38% among 5-8 year olds to 23% among 9-11 year olds. This is the same time that kids’ daily reading for fun starts to decline.

Again, not news for us librarians who know kids. But it’s reassuring to read it all the same; it’s a good antidote to all the stuff we keep seeing about how people are reading books less and Googling the Net more. Yet I sure wish that the researchers had also asked these kids whether they went to the library and asked the librarian for help finding great stuff to read.

Baby & a laptopThere’s a good article, “So Young, and So Gadgeted,” in the June 12 New York Times, by kids’ tech guru Warren Buckleitner. It’s meant to serve as a guide to parents about what tech gadgets currently on the market are appropriate for kids of which age. But I think it’s better to simply use it as a guide for when kids are ready for the Web. And although some parents seem really eager to get their little geniuses online ASAP, most kids can’t handle the Web in general until they’re able to read well.

Younger children can only function online when they are monitored by someone who is either an adult or a pretty good reader, or when they’re using developmentally appropriate game sites like these or these. Buckleitner reminds us that “Babies and toddlers cannot use a mouse until at least age 2 ½.”

And the vast majority of kids aren’t really ready to face the Web on their own until the age of 8 or so. It’s too confusing and too filled with ads and distracting animations to work well for kids any younger. That doesn’t stop some parents, though:

Some parents eagerly provide their children with technology. “My 4-year-old has been on the Web since he could sit up,” said Samantha Morra, a mother of two from Montclair, N.J. “My 6-year-old has an iPod and wants a cellphone, although my husband and I aren’t sure who he’d call.”

So ignore the names of the tech products and expensive Web site subscriptions Buckleitner mentions (after all, that’s his job), and read what’s left. Remember that kids’ use of the Web will explode as their literacy skills increase; the more they can read, the more they’ll be able to experience online. The more their keyboarding skills grow, the easier it will be for them, too.

Buckleitner knows what he’s talking about, but his job is to review expensive tech products that most kids will never have the chance to use. And most of the kids in your libraries are only going to be looking at the stuff that’s available free. The more we familiarize ourselves with the game sites and the Web sites suitable for younger (and lass literate) kids, the bigger help we’ll be.

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