At your (21st Century) library now: “Super Smash Brothers Brawl”

Instead of encountering white-haired ladies telling patrons to “shhh!”, visitors to a modern library these days are more likely to find kids playing Wii or surfing the web. Rather than remain closed chambers of stacks of old books, libraries today are reinventing themselves to adapt to the needs of a wired generation born with digital DNA. In some cases, the library has emerged as a friendlier alternative for middle and high-school kids to hang out after school than say the mall or Starbucks. While many coffee shops offer free wi-fi, many libraries go far beyond that, as this article in the Madison Capital Times explains:

Information still is central to libraries, but what has changed are the forms it takes and how it’s accessed. Books, newspapers and magazines are as plentiful as ever, but today’s libraries also typically offer as many computers as their infrastructure and space can handle, free wireless Internet access, and items such as e-books, DVDs and compact discs.  But for many, it’s all about the Internet, which has turned out to be a boon for libraries. While most people surf online at home, others don’t have Internet access or have clunky dial-up access. Serving that population is part of a library’s critical public mission, library officials said. Even those with broadband at home visit libraries for access to databases that individuals either can’t get, or would have to pay for to access from home.

By hosting gaming events aimed at tweens and teens, libraries are positioning themselves as the ideal after-school program, where kids can go and have some fun, and then get some homework done as well. Statistics collected by the American Library Association indicate that three quarters of teens who come for a gaming event return to the library for something else. (Maybe, say, a book?) It’s all about adapting to your customer. Some libraries are even starting to lend Kindles to their patrons.

Reaching out to low income families can play a key role in the battle of declining literacy skills:

That can be particularly crucial in a neighborhood like the north side, where Lakeview is located, and where there is a significant population of low-income families who struggle to afford necessities, much less electronic games and Internet access.  “We had a social services group bring a group of 35 kids to (Lakeview) for gaming and they couldn’t wait to come back,” Dimick said. “These kids wouldn’t have access any other way. And when they’re there they may trip over something else.”

Maybe the new libraies should be laid out with the high-tech stuff at the back, requiring users to pass through the stacks to get to the games, to take advantage of the “stumble-upon” effect. Or maybe a program like, check out 5 books, and you get to borrow a game as well. Challenging times call for creative thinking.

http://www.madison.com/tct/entertainment/289537

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Welcome to KindlesforKids!

Amazon’s Kindle e-book readerThis blog was established to put forward the concept that Amazon’s new Kindle e-book reader  can play an important part in combatting declining literacy levels among schoolchildren in the US. (And eventually in other countries if the wireless capability is expanded globally. Until that happens, the optional storage card can hold hundreds more than the 200 books that the Kindle’s built in memory can store. This  feature thus brings many of the Kindle’s benefits to regions that currently lack wireless access to it.) Think of it: school kids with access to a virtually unlimited array of textbooks, classic literature, always-on Wikipedia and an array of other educational resources, while simultaneously reducing the weight of their overburdened backpacks! Yes, the current price point is a major deterrent but as the law of declining technology prices kicks in, volume discounts, etc, soon it will be within the reach of many students. For those in need, a non-profit is being established that subsidizes the cost of the unit, thus extend the reach to anyone, regardless of income bracket. Combined with initiatives such as the Gutenberg Project, which offers a catalog of tens of thousands of free e-books, the Kindle could be a more effective solution to achieving the goal of universal literacy than the One Laptop Per Child mission. 
I see the two technologies serving largely different needs and markets.  The mission of the OLPC foundation, as stated on their website, is to empower the children of developing countries to learn by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child (up to the 5th grade). This goal is being achieved by negotiations between the foundation and various third world governments, typically for millions of units. The scale is far more ambitous than what I had in mind for the Kindle, which due to its current wireless capability, will only work in the US. I’m not sure if OLPC is even intended for any US children, but even if it is, I think the Kindle is probably the more effective tool to deal with the literacy gap. It has (or could have, with appropriate licensing deals) everything that underserved middle and high school children would need to raise their literacy levels – all the textbooks, dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference materials, not to mention an always on connection to Wikipedia. (and it plays audiobooks and MP3s). I still believe it would be less daunting to roll out the Kindle to this population than OLPC. I also think the aim of KindlesforKids should be the middle and high-school grades, since this is the stage that reading activity has declined over the last decade. (To see some actual data, refer to the NEA’s recent report: To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence.)
So to move this initiative forward, it is necessary to test the hypothesis that putting Kindles in the hands of  school children who have limited or no access to the materials they need to further their education will somehow improve their literacy. In the US, which like it or not, is obsessed with two terms, tests and standards, (due to  the No Child Left Behind Act), this requires demonstrating a measurable increment in reading scores among school children after a year or two of any introduction of new technology or learning method. Therefore the first step in this process is identifying a population of school children that meets the general standard of “underserved” and that has lower than average literacy scores. This should not be too difficult. The next step is to find an adventurous teacher and supportive adminstration that is willing to conduct this pilot program.
The non-profit organization that I have established, Connect2Books.org, seeks to partner with other organizations and foundations to underwrite the cost of the hardware and a nominal selection of e-books. Any takers? I will use this blog to document my progress. Stay tuned…