Librarians, why not use cellphone petting zoos to help promote your e-books?

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E-book petting zoos at libraries let patrons try out different kinds of e-book readers and tablets. Now here's a related idea: library-friendly cellphone petting zoos.

lg39cKeep in mind that many young people and low-income folks don't think of themselves normally as prospective e-book users. It's the phones they care about most of all.

But some econo-phones can be at least adequate as e-book readers for the right patrons.

Other than keys, a wallet or a purse, guess which object people are most likely to carry with them? And from there, it's just a question of librarians talking up e-books. They can find out patrons’ interests, mention specific e-titles and say, "Hey, give ‘em a try on your phone. And if you don’t own a cellphone or plan to switch soon to another model, I’ve got a few ideas for you. I’ll show you how e-books look on various models."

A cellphone with a small screen isn't everyone's cup of tea for e-reading. But the eyes of many teenagers are sharp enough. Also, some readers with attention deficit issues say the narrow screens of cellphones are actually better for them.

Yes, vision-impaired folks in their 40s or 50s or above may still be skeptical. I've got one word for them. Wattpad. It's a thriving reading and writing community whose traffic comes mainly from mobile users. While short fiction is the main fare over there, Wattpad also encourages book reading. Savvy librarians can turn Wattpad regulars into fans of library e-books—ideally nonfiction and fiction alike.

As one hardware possibility for some patrons on a budget, I'd recommend the LG39c (Optimus Dynamic II) made by LG and available for use with the economy prepaid Tracfone plan, which as far as I know has no age limit.

Cost of the LG39c is $100 now at Amazon and likely to drop—perhaps eventually to a fraction of that. The manual with detailed information is here. I bought the LG39c earlier this year and find it's good for reading on the go even if it's a far cry from my iPad Air.

LG39c's specs: Not stellar but adequate for many

The LG39c is hardly the fastest model, admittedly. Games-players would probably laugh at it, and even Web browsing could be speedier. The RAM is just 512K, the single-core 1GHZ CPU is hardly impressive, and the Android 4.1 isn't the latest. But the LG39c comes with a 4GB memory card and accommodates replacements of up to 32GB.

A 3.8 inch screen beats the size of those on many similarly priced cellphones. Also, the LG39c can tap into the Google Play Store and comes with e-mail and texting apps and many others already installed. It can run the OverDrive media console and the Android Kindle e-reading app and works with another e-book capable Android app, Mantano Reader, which offers text to speech and supports the Adobe DRM that libraries use. For better readability—the 39c's resolution is a less than outstanding  320×480—you might choose Mantano's all-bold option. Two other apps to think about would be Dropbox and the Boat Web browser, both available through the Play Store.

For more details on the LG39c and similar devices for library use, check out LibraryCity's guide to getting the most out of library e-books. And for ideas on using wall posters to keep e-books on young people's mind and make them more of a social experience offline than they are now, go here.

No, I'm not going to mention a bunch of other cellphones here—this isn't a full survey of the options available, just a reflection of my many hours of testing the LG39c as an e-reader. But for library patrons who want to sink a little more into their phones, the 8GB Moto G and the 16GB Moto X might be worth consideration. Over at TeleRead, see my friend Chris Meadows' review of the Moto X, combined with a plan that lets cellphone users take advantage of WiFi to cut their bills.

Also worth investigating, based simply on customer comments at Amazon, might be the BLU Studio 5.5 D610a Unlocked Dual SIM GSM Phone, which, according to some advertising, has a five-inch screen—a few people say it's bigger (tape measure, anyone?). When I last checked, the Amazon price was $170. BLU models tend to have larger displays than similarly priced competitors', although there are trade-offs. The dot per inch count is better than the 39c’s, but still a long way from iPad Air territory.

Speaking of Apple, I'm all in favor of new and recycled iPhones as e-readers for appropriate patrons (iPhoners interested in text to speech might like the iOS-only Voice Dream app). But isn't it great to know that much-lower-priced alternatives are also out there?

Some related ideas

Idea #1: What if cellphone companies like Tracfone teamed up with libraries to give young users "talk time" in return for demonstrated and meaningful participation in library programs, especially literacy-related ones. People should engage in recreational reading for their pleasure; we're talking "recreational," after all. But if some free talk time can hook them, why not experiment?

Idea #2: I also wonder about the possibility of libraries coming up with easy-to-use software especially designed for enjoying e-books and other library offerings on low-powered phones without having to rely so heavily on the OverDrive eco-system. I know my friends with Douglas County library system in Colorado have kept refining their librarian-run ecosystem. They may well fulfill my wishes here.

Without their own eco-system, libraries stand a good chance of eventually being bypassed. The ideal solution would be a purchase of OverDrive at a fair price, by way of a national digital library endowment. But that's grist for other posts, beyond the ones already made.

Idea #3: Could there be phone recycling programs designed with libraries especially in mind? And when the recycled phones were distributed to patrons, could they come with a library-optimized e-book app? Just to address a related issue, yes, the recycled phones could be cheap enough to give away to patrons who showed sufficient interest in library activities to improve themselves.

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