An e-smart family literacy approach for Rockford, Illinois? Back to the future?

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Could children be better readers if we went “back to the future,” even in the era of e-books and calls for massive budget calls? I’ll share thoughts.

But first let’s hear from Andy Strong, a children’s librarian at the library in Rockford, Illinois, during the 1990s:

“When the library cut its hours, it drastically reduced storytime programming. In fact, service to parents and young children is a shadow of what it once was.

“In its heyday, mothers and children would leave the library with armloads and tote bags full of books. Head Start would routinely bring busloads of children to dedicated storytimes weekly, introducing new families to the joys of reading and the power of library use.

“Part of the mission of assuring an informed citizenry is in supporting the growth and development of our youngest future sovereign citizens. And I would argue that learning to pull a book from a shelf with one’s own hands, and learning to read from a book with pages is qualitatively different than using a screen. The research is already starting to bear this out. Add to this the caution regarding health effects from electronic devices, and I think I’d prefer to cuddle up next to my child with a non-EMF-emitting paper book, thank you.”

The LibraryCity take: I do not agree with everything above—for example, a Kindle isn’t the same EMF threat as an old cathode ray tube monitor, especially if you don’t use WiFi—but oh how right Andy is about library priorities!

We need to reinvent early childhood education, family literacy and library storytelling hours to accommodate the new technology.

Children should learn to read from e-books as well as p-books, the gateway drug. That means not cutting the number of branches or their hours. If librarians or teachers can visit receptive families at home to tailor-make family literacy programs, based on what they find there—well, so much the better.

Football, baseball or basketball game on the tube? Then on the spot, the visitor could ask a few questions to guide the family to appropriate books or other fiction or nonfiction.

E-books, including the open access variety favored by the Digital Public Library of America, could drive down the costs and allow the books to pop up instantly on the e-reader gadgets the librarians were accustoming the families to.

As I see it, a national digital library system among other things could team up with local libraries and schools on family-oriented pilot projects that used both e-books and p-books and focused on words and stories and related them to children’s surroundings, as opposed to relying simply on technology alone.

Parent-child reading, with both generations asking questions and commenting on the content, as opposed to fixating on techno frills, is the ultimate social medium.

Related in the New York Times: Before the First School Bell, Teachers in Bronx Make House Calls.

Detail: I’ve shortened the paragraphs in the quote from Andy.

Update, Feb. 23: More thoughts from Andy—in reaction to the library’s plans.

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2 comments to “An e-smart family literacy approach for Rockford, Illinois? Back to the future?”
2 comments to “An e-smart family literacy approach for Rockford, Illinois? Back to the future?”
  1. Hey, David! Thank you for using part of my guest column as a springboard for your thoughts regarding family literacy and the role that e-books might play in it. I have so many mixed feelings, I don’t know where to start.

    Perhaps I should start with the use of the phrase that likens e-book give-a-ways to a “gateway drug.” I’ve seen you use this metaphor before, and it makes me cringe every time. In one respect, it is “truth in advertising,” as “screen time” equals “opiate of the masses.” On a less erudite level, why would we want to connote something life-affirming and positive (reading) with something harmful and negative (drug abuse). I simply think this piece of rhetoric is one that you could easily lose. And when you put this in juxtaposition with the code words, “family literacy,” all I can see is red. Please forgive me for being so blunt.

    Now, to the larger issue of e-book readers and reading development. I am not an expert, and I have no research to back up my intuitive suppositions, but I think that it is critical that we be very careful about the age at which we introduce e-readers to children. Perhaps an acutal expert can back me up with citations, but I recall being told of a study that showed that children who did not crawl very much as infants had greater trouble with reading comprehension when they reached reading ages, and that when adults who had trouble with reading compehension were made to actually crawl for a period of time (as a kind of therapy) they experienced improvement in this area. That got me to thinking about the way infants and toddlers interact with physical books. In homes where books are a normal part of life, children often discover them at the age of crawling. They put them in their mouths when they find them. They crinkle the pages and revel in the sound. They see and begin to make sense of pictures on the page. They discover that each page has a different picture, and that the picture stays the same on the page where they find it. They flip back and forth from page to page, feeling the paper, hearing the sound of it, and seeing the pictures. And, the interaction with an adult pointing to and naming pictures and words and guiding them from left to right, front to back, takes the experience to a whole new level. All of this often happens concurrently.

    E-readers skip much of the tactile step. It would not surpise me at all to find research showing that reading comprehension of children trained on e-readers lacks compared to that of children taught to read using actual physical, printed, paper books.

    Traditional storytime is an interesting thing to think about, too. What is it about the library lady reading from a picturebook that makes it so special? I mean, as a kid, you can hardly see the durned picture from where you sit, anyway… And yet, she holds your attention! And what will happen when she turns the page? Ah, the suspense! Big Books (you know, the large format picturebooks that came into being with the Whole Language movement?) really helped with the audience appreciation part of being able to see the pictures better. I suppose you could do the same thing with e-books, and use a PowerPoint slide show for your Big Book analog… But it’s not the same as turning a page to reveal a surprise. There is something qualitatively different about looking at a picture, lit by reflected light, on a physical page as opposed to looking at a luminous screen. It hits and affects the brain differently.

    I hope my disagreement about these points doesn’t piss you off. I very much agree with you that we need a digital public library that is fair to authors, publishers, and libraries–one that considers the issues of ownership, permanance, portability, and privacy, and that obviates the tyranny of the ugly and surreptitious aspects of digital rights management vis a vis proprietary access. I very much appreciate your voice in this arena and join with you in the desire for a true PUBLIC digital library that leverages all that the digital format has to offer!

    –Andy Strong

  2. Thanks, Andy—you’re always welcome to comment here, whether or not you agree! I’ll cheerfully acknowledge the addictive qualities of books and add that they’re a far, far more benign form of “gateway drug” than than the nonmetaphorical variety. But I’ll see if others share your concerns. If enough people worry, I’ll use different language in the future. I appreciate the feedback.

    Now about E and P in a toddler context. I know: e-books are different. But keep in mind that, as you’ve just noted in responding to “gateway drugs,” I’ve suggested making both paper and digital books available to new readers. Let the kids and their parents decide what works for them. The Rockford library has been wrong on many things, but not in saying that it would keep paper books around for children (though I don’t know about the number of titles). At some point, however, many children may decide that the topics in the pictures and words are far more important than the experiences of flipping the pages.

    Even when I was young, I cared a lot more about the subjects of books than anything else. I would have welcomed more of an opportunity to follow my passions. This is what the greater availability of titles in E could mean—especially when so many libraries are cash-strapped.

    I haven’t crawled much lately and won’t comment on that. But in the opposite vein, I’d point to a YouTube where a child regards a paper magazine as a broken iPad. Depends to a great extent on what children get used to. In the end, isn’t it better for children and families to enjoy more options, not fewer? And ideally learn to love both paper and digital books?

    For now, the real message I’ve picked up from some true specialists, teachers, including my sister, is the need for parent-child bonding and active interaction with the child. What really counts, in the end, is less the medium than the way it’s used. I’d totally agree with those worried about the electronic bells and whistles distracting from the words and pictures.

    > There is something qualitatively different about looking at a picture, lit by reflected light, on a physical page as opposed to looking at a luminous screen. It hits and affects the brain differently.

    E Ink-style technologies do use reflected light. So in the end there is absolutely no differences in that respect. While LCDs are the main show now for people wanting color e-books, this will change in the future as E Ink and the like improve. In fact, speaking of page flipping, even that feature may come to e-books in time, with hundreds of pages available for an unlimited number of changes of content. Meanwhile, I’d love to see publishers of children’s books experiment with colorful progress bars at the bottoms of pages to indicate where the child is in the book.

    On another matter, yes, I’m delighted that you like the general idea of a well-stocked national digital library for the whole country rather than just the elite. The toddler angle is just one example of the possibilities here; we’d agree on many and perhaps most of the others. So hang around. I’d find a complete consensus not only to be boring but also counter-productive—in that some great new solutions can come out of friendly debate. For now, I myself am frustrated over having been born too early. Would that I have grown up with all the additional choices that e-books offer!


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