Time to care more about AMERICANS reading library e-books on mobile phones: Learn from successes overseas

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readinginthemobileeraEbenezer Scrooge must have leapt out of the pages of Dickens to write library budgets.

No small number of America’s school libraries have shrunk or closed. Meanwhile my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, is spending just $2.60 per capita on books and other items for public library users. It’s far below the pitiful national norm of about $4. And the city council is on track to reduce that.

Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, is even pushing to kill off the Institute of Museum and Library Service. Ryan probably won’t get his wish, but a few years from now, who knows?

How can American libraries respond to the new austerity?

Greater promotion of reading on cellphones—through means ranging from e-book posters to book-friendly cellphone-petting zoos—could be one of many ways. Cost per book can be lower than on paper if librarians optimize business models. Smartphone use is higher than many would expect among minorities and the poor, the very people who rely most on libraries for library content and want more. And in an earlier post and the Baltimore Sun, LibraryCity suggested new approaches—for example, links to carefully chosen free content from services such as Wattpad.

It would also help for U.S. philanthropists and nonprofits to care as much about Americans reading on cellphone as they do about people reading in Africa or developing countries elsewhere. No, cellphones aren’t for all. And then there’s the issue of paying for content as well as for librarians and others to encourage its absorption—hence, the need for a national digital library endowment. Such an endeavor would give libraries more bargaining power with publishers while actually sending more money their way in the end. Win-win.

Meanwhile, for inspiration, library strategists at all levels should check out a Guardian article, a Unesco report and a Unesco YouTube. Here’s an excerpt from the April 23 Guardian:

“Unesco is pointing to a ‘mobile reading revolution’ in developing countries after a year-long study found that adults and children are increasingly reading multiple books and stories on their phones.

“Nearly 5,000 people in seven countries—Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe—took part in the research, the largest study of its kind to date, which found that 62% of respondents are reading more, now they can read on their mobile phones. One in three said they read to children from their mobile phones, and 90% of respondents said they would be spending more time reading on their mobile phones in the next year.

“The study, says Unesco in its report, found that ‘people read more when they read on mobile devices, that they enjoy reading more, and that people commonly read books and stories to children from mobile devices’.

"’The study shows that mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilised, pathway to text,’ says the report, for which Unesco partnered with Worldreader—a global not-for-profit organisation that works to bring digital books to readers around the world—and Nokia. ‘It is not hyperbole to suggest that if every person on the planet understood that his or her mobile phone could be transformed—easily and cheaply—into a library brimming with books, access to text would cease to be such a daunting hurdle to literacy.’”

wr1While I'm wildly in favor of Worldreader’s international efforts, I'd welcome American philanthropists and nonprofits showing as much passion for similar activities at home, especially given the strong connection between academic achievement and even recreational reading.

Along the way, why not more efforts to develop local minority writers, the best of whose work could be served up to cellphone audiences, just as Wattpad so successfully does at a global level? Ashley Gordon of Mockingbird Publishing called my attention just the other day to the “writers in place” efforts of the Room to Read initiative. Might not similar geo-based approaches work here in the States and help spread around the works of gifted minority writers whose works so often fail to find homes at mainstream publishers?

Yes, literacy drives in the U.S. face obstacles such as all the distractions from TV and other media. But with enough ingenuity, librarians can work with others to overcome them.

Librarians, for example, can team up with employers to start reading clubs and use company newsletters and other means to call attention to the accomplishments of individual participants. Similarly health and childcare facilities can work with parents to get their children interested in books early on. It’s already happening in some cities.

Time for a domestic version of Worldreader Mobile?

At the nuts and bolts level, what would cellphone-based literacy programs look like on the users’ screen? How would they work? Obviously business models in the States would have to be different from those overseas, given the heavy interest among U.S. library patrons in bestsellers from major publishers. But at least the overseas activities show us how much the technology can be simplified compared to the current complexities of checking out e-books here in the States. From the Unesco report:

“Worldreader Mobile (WRM) is an application that allows people to access books and stories from a wide variety of mobile phones, including inexpensive feature phones. The application was launched in 2012 by Worldreader, a non-profit organization that seeks to eradicate illiteracy by delivering a large, culturally relevant library to people in low-income countries both digitally and inexpensively. Co-founded in 2010 by Colin McElwee and former Microsoft and Amazon.com executive David Risher, Worldreader provisions e-readers and e-books to children in African countries in addition to making its library accessible from mobile devices through WRM.

“On average WRM had 334,000 unique active users per month during 2013 and is one of the most popular mobile reading applications in developing countries. Worldreader Mobile runs on the biNu platform which uses patented data compression technology to allow anyone with a data-connected mobile phone to access Worldreader’s library of over 6,000 digital titles.

“To read on WRM, users download the free application, which is available in several app stores including Google Play, Opera and GetJar. The application resides in the memory of the phone, but the books are stored in the cloud and all reading is done while the phone is connected to mobile data. Offline reading is not possible on WRM, as the books are never downloaded to the phone.

“WRM books and stories encompass a variety of genres including romance, religion, education, health, action/adventure and more. Many of the titles are well-known and available in hardcover and paperback as well as in digital formats.

worldreaderscreens“While most of the books in the WRM library are written in English, there are a growing number of titles in other languages including Hindi, Yoruba, Kiswahili, Twi and others. The WRM library has been growing steadily since the application was released and Worldreader actively seeks new agreements with publishers.

“The vast majority of WRM books and stories can be read for free although a small fee is incurred due to data use. In most countries, the data fees are equivalent to 2 US cents per 1000 pages read. Some titles are not freely accessible and need to be purchased by end users, generally with mobile credit. The price for a paid title is usually around 3.50 US dollars and, like the free books, is accessed via a mobile data connection.”

Although I’d like to see offline reading and many other refinements, Worldreader Mobile shows how a well-designed basic menu could make library e-reading considerably less intimidating. Also, do you notice the differences between the screens of adult books and children’s titles?

With the right software, a surprisingly large number of Americans should be willing to read whole books on small devices. Why? Because—as LibraryCity has pointed out—cellphones are among the objects that people are most likely to carry everywhere. So here in the States it would be possible for smartphone owners to sneak in reading sessions in the grocery line or on the bus. And with smartphones going for as little as $20 used, libraries really ought to experiment with giving them away to suitable cash-strapped readers if they’re gung ho enough and the right apps and connections exists.

In the case of smartphones at least, libraries can even use Librarybox technology to send e-books to cellphone owners without the usual Net connections. That could be a natural for, say, some public housing projects and places such as Indian reservations. The optimal scenario, of course, would be the usual connections. But primitive connections beat none.

Some good news: Most cellphones in the U.S. have much better and bigger screens and can display more text at once than those in developing countries. Beyond that, there’s a move toward cellphones with displays almost as roomy as those on small tablets—giving rise to a new word, “phablet.” I’ll be trying out a five-inch model. While phablet prices might be beyond many family budgets even in the States, they’ll almost surely be dropping, and libraries should look ahead.

(Thanks to Steve Thomas on Google+.)

Update, May 27: After recalculating, I adjusted downward the figure for the amount spent per capita on library content in Alexandria. I’d originally said $3.25.

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