Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What do we do about apps?

Children's librarians are experts on picture books--we take this for granted. We know how to evaluate them, share them with children, choose the appropriate book for an individual child and even, in our professional groups, choose the best books of the year. We award the most prestigious prizes for children's books. But now we are coping with a new technology tht may be confusing and even make us feel hostile. Children and parents are choosing to buy their picture books in the form of apps that they look at on the screen of an i-pad, i-phone or a Kindle fire. A few pioneering public libraries loan i-Pads and quite a few schools offer them routinely to children, but for many librarians this whole area is a mystery. What's the future of apps in libraries? Here are some of the questions:
--Will we ever be able to loan apps separately from the equipment for viewing them?
--Most apps are very cheap, but they are not high quality. How can we encourage better apps?
--How are we going to catalog and keep track of apps if we circulate them?

These questions deserve a lot of thought, although it's not clear that the library profession is spending their time that way. For a start, you might read the Children's Apps Manifesto
put together by two savvy tech people who have thought about the pricing structure of apps and what business models best serve the needs of parents and children. The manifesto doesn't address the needs or interests of libraries, but that will come if librarians make their voices heard. While the purchase of apps is a growing trend for middle-and-upper-class families, they still haven't saturated society. If you traveled by air on Thanksgiving Weekend, you probably saw lots of kids in airports clutching little electronic screens enjoying picture book apps. If you traveled by Greyhound bus, as I did, you more likely saw a kid with a plastic bag holding a battered book from Walmart. Libraries are the great equalizers. We should be sure to make our voices heard in the discussions about the future of children's apps. Our patrons will want them and while we don't ever want to give up books, we should add the excitement and possibilities of apps to the mix. Let's pay attention and make sure the children in our libraries get their share.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another step backward

Libraries are finding that their patrons, just like other readers, are looking more and more for ebook formats. Over the past year, there has been a sharp growth in the provision of ebooks in libraries. But now, once again, a publisher is pulling back and trying to turn the clock back to the days of all-print. Penguin publishing announced it would no longer make its new books available for borrowing in libraries. The reason given was a vague worry about security, but no one I've talked to can figure out what that worry would be. The more likely reason is a specific worry about sales of books. That's a legitimate concern, publishers after all are in business to make money, but many of them seem determined to ignore what the public wants. Most likely the average reader will not buy the Penguin ebook but will look for another book from a different publisher to borrow from the library. We don't live in a world where many people can afford to buy all the books they would like to read. That's why public libraries are becoming more popular week by week. Instead of pulling all its books from the library market, Penguin should try to work out a model that would give a fair profit to writers and publishers without making most books inaccessible to the audience that wants to read them. This is especially important for the youthful readers who cannot possibly purchase books for themselves. Very few families buy books for their children, not with the prices being charged by publishers. Libraries are the major source most children have for reading materials. Let's not cut down on the supply but work to increase it. Publishers and librarians both stand to gain from an increase in reading. Let's work together to make it possible to fill the need for good books.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Some help from the scientists

Children's librarians usually have great faith that in intoducing young children to reading books and stories they are helping them grow into the kind of adults we want to have in our communities. We believe that reading stories about children in difficult situations or those scarred by war or hardship helps the reader sympathize with other people. Sometimes this is known as the "library faith"--the belief that reading literature is good in itself and produces desirable results.Now several academic psychologists have tested this theory and discovered that it can be empirically demonstrated. In his article "In the Minds of Others" in Scientific American Keith Oatley describes how scientists looked at this problem. Oatley and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied the social skills of a group of adults who were readers of either fiction or nonfiction. They found that the more fiction people read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes of the people in photographs they were shown. The fiction readers were also a little better at correctly interpreting social clues from the photos.

In a follow-up experiment with preschool children, another group of scientists demonstrated that children who were read stories were better able to separate the feelings of another person from their own feelings. They could put themselves in the mind of a person who preferred a carrot snack to a sweet and correctly assess which snack the individual would choose. In an interesting related finding, it was found that while reading (or being read to) improved social empathy, watching television had no such effect.

It is heartening to find some evidence that the beliefs we librarians have held for years are proving to be valid. Years of experience have taught us that children who read stories, like adults who read, may indeed gain the ability to empathize and understand other people. Surely that is a good enough reason for us to continue our work of encouraging reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Watch the tech page for further developments

Many librarians have been reading the Publisher's Weekly list of best children's books and it's certainly worth looking over. But also today we got another reminder that the book news isn't the only news we should be following if we want to serve our patrons well. The good old NY Times once again reported important news in its technology colums. Peter Wayner has written a fascinating article about one of the newest opportunities in the digital world, several new computer programming languages which have been developed for children. Now this may be a subject librarians haven't thought too much about because programming is usually a classroom or afterschool subject, but these new languages may change that. New tools like Scratch and Alice allow children to cooperate to produce simple video games and animated films. These tools are not for the faint of heart or those who want to have spectacular results in five minutes. They require patience and work, but they lead children into the pleasure of expressing their creativity. Surely the library, whether school or public, is a good home for this kind of extracurricular project. In a world where children spend far more time interacting with screens than they do with books, we should encourage them to use their creativity to create stories and explore the possibilities of media literacy as well as print literacy. The children in our libraries today may develop a whole new kind of book for the future and that's exactly the kind out outcome we want to encourage.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Can librarians solve the STEM shortage?

Educators were discouraged to read in a recent NY Times article that young people who move from high school to college aiming to major in one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects, often drop out of that major long before they graduate. Despite the emphasis that the Obama administration, backed by business and political leaders across the country, have emphasized in recent years is that America needs more workers who can handle the complex engineering and technical demands of the modern workplace. The call has been for 10,000 new engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers in the STEM area. Why in this time of high unemployment don’t young people answer the call? The reasons are complex, but one of the most discouraging is that many middle school and high school students are enthusiastic about science and technology. When they enter college and endure the large classes taught in lecture format that most schools still mount for freshmen, they become bored and lose interest. The humanities and social sciences with more discussion and more projects (not to mention higher grades overall) tempt them away from their original plans. It’s clear that reforms are needed in college teaching, but what has this to do with children’s librarians? More than you might think.

One way children become interested in science, and one way of keeping them involved, is giving them books and other resources to whet their interest. And some of the best science writing being done these days is for children. Just take a look at some of the books listed on ALSC’s 2011 Notable Books for Children list:

Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe

Nic Bishop Lizards

Bones: Skeletons and How They Work

The Bat Scientists

Every one of those books is memorable. And of course these are only the beginning. As children move into high school, there are equally good books available. The YALSA award lists include many of them. Adult books too are suitable for many teenagers, including the bestseller Destiny of the Republic a biography of James Garfield which has an unusual emphasis on the history of medicine.

The wealth of nonbook media based on STEM subjects offers riches. ALA’s list of Great Websites for Kids is a start, but the possibilities are large. New games, apps, podcasts, and videos can help keep young people engaged in the excitement of discovery and problem solving. Isn’t it time for librarians to take some responsibility for the dearth of American scientists rather than just tut-tutting about how many jobs have to be filled from abroad? Even though the easy way for librarians to increase circulation is to push an endless series of books about vampires, werewolves, and superheroes, maybe we have some responsibility to open new areas to our patrons, not to just serve up warmed-over fantasy. We don't have to give up fantasy (and wouldn't want to) but just to be sure that there is a strong reinforcement for fact-based books about the exciting challenges waiting for young people to deal with as they move out into the world. The more strongly their love of science, engineering, and technology is supported not just through classes but also through the strong emotional pull of books, the more likely they are to stick with their dreams and make them come true. Think about it!