If you’re at all in touch with news from the library world, you may have come across some articles about Open Ebooks on social media. In short, it’s a partnership between the New York Public Library, First Book, and the Digital Public Library of America. Publishers have agreed to make current titles from their catalogs – thousands of them – available for free to children from low-income families who have an adult in their lives registered with First Book. The New York Public Library developed a free app that allows kids to download the books, and the First Book credentials are required to gain access – and then the sky’s the limit. There are no hold lists. No waiting. Just instant access to thousands of books.
Sounds amazing, right? Kids need books in their homes to become good readers. Research has proven this time and time again. Open Ebooks is harnessing the power of technology to make those books available to thousands of children who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Do you know what makes reluctant readers want to read? Books they like. But for poor kids, getting to the library to borrow the books they want can be a challenge. What’s more, if the books they want are checked out (as new, popular books tend to be), then they can be put on a hold list. And wait. And when the day finally comes and it’s Susie’s turn to check it out, what if she can’t get a ride to the library because her mom is working double shifts?
I used to work the circulation desk occasionally in my decade of library work. One of the morning tasks is pulling expired holds off the shelf and checking them in to either be reshelved or held for the next person in line. I used to wonder, when doing this, why the books weren’t picked up. Certainly, some people just forgot, or they managed to get the book somewhere else. But how many of those children’s books – the latest Bob Shea or the new Geronimo Stilton or Elephant and Piggie’s latest adventure – were being pulled because the kid who wanted to read them just couldn’t get someone to take her to the library? This wasn’t a scenario that I really dwelled on while I was working at the library because my kids had limitless books brought home to them. But now, even as a stay-at-home mom with supposedly all the time in the world to do things like go to the library (ha ha), it doesn’t happen. How hard must it be for the family that lives out in the country with only one car that’s gone all day with the working parent (let alone the family with no working car and no access to public transportation)?
Enter ebooks. Now, suddenly, Susie, a beginning reader who is completely enthralled with Mo Willem’s simple, yet, nuanced dialogue between Elephant and Piggie (not to mention the charming illustrations), doesn’t have to wait on a list to finally read their latest adventures. She has a hand-me-down iPad from Uncle Ted and the Open Ebook app. Voila! It’s instantly available – all she needs is a WiFi connection.
Or, too bad she doesn’t have a WiFi connection. This is where the criticism of the program grabs hold. Every article I’ve seen about it on social media has comment after comment about how this is not what kids need. “If your family is so poor, why do you have an iPad?” “The money spent on this should have gone to libraries to buy more physical books for kids to check out!” “Poor kids don’t have WiFi at home!” “Kids spend enough time in front of screens as it is!” And so on. I was shocked that so few people were voicing support for Open Ebooks. There is a widely-distributed piece from Book Riot about why it’s not going to help. I disagree with all of these assertions (except for the spirit of putting more money into libraries – I will always get behind that, if not in this case).
Here’s what the detractors are overlooking:
1. Open Ebook is part of the Connect Ed initiative, which also intends to put broadband internet in nearly every public school in America by 2018. We’re well into 2016 already. That’s just around the corner. While it’s true that a lot of kids don’t live near a library (which is almost guaranteed to have broadband) and many libraries enforce limits on WiFi usage, libraries aren’t the only places to get free internet anymore. “Oh, but kids need to spend their library time [assuming they get it] doing homework.” Yes, they do. But if kids can access the internet at school, the library, and most of the businesses they might encounter, chances are good that they can simply download a few ebooks for later. Speaking of which…
2. The ebooks can be downloaded. (Hint: that means you can read them offline.)
3. Lots of households have mobile devices now. Even many of those that are considered low income (roughly half of households earning under $30,000 have a smartphone, according to a Pew research study). And, no, the families shouldn’t have to sell their devices to buy food. While screen time should be limited, kids absolutely need to have access to technology. And kids often have childless aunts and uncles who are only too happy to wipe their old iPads and pass them along to their nieces and nephews. The internet is not a passing phase. It’s not a fad that will soon be out of style. It’s here to stay. Every day, more and more work that used to be duplicated by multiple workers in multiple parts of a business is streamlined and networked and made available to everyone who needs it to increase productivity. (I should know – this is exactly what my husband does for a living.) Tomorrow’s work force needs to become fluent in the technology of today and stay fluent as it changes. So, yes – even poor kids should have tablets.
4. These ebooks cost the taxpayers pretty much zero dollars. As I already said, Open Ebooks is made possible by an agreement with some of the biggest publishers of children’s literature – Bloomsbury, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House, to name just a few – as well as technology companies and library and literacy partners. The publishers have donated the rights to the books for the project. Only low-income children – children who wouldn’t be buying books for themselves anyway – can access them. Even if we throw out all the benefits of a literate society and just think of the bottom line, a project like this has the potential to inspire lifetime readers – who will, thanks to the power of reading – be far more likely to grow up and go to college, get good jobs, be better off financially than their parents were – and buy books. The publishers are making an investment in the future book market.
5. No one is replacing bricks and mortar libraries. One of the most popular comments I saw about articles covering Open Ebooks is that the money that went into the project should have gone to putting more physical books into library buildings. First, this project isn’t taking funding away from your community library (see my point above). Second, it’s meant to complement the existing libraries in schools and communities. As I mentioned above, libraries only have so many copies of books, and the most popular ones tend to have lengthy hold lists on them. As each person on that list gets a turn to read the book, the book is held for a period of time (usually five to seven days, depending on the library) for the person to pick it up. Then that person can check it out for somewhere between two and four weeks. Imagine if the library only has three copies of the book but there are 30 people on the hold list. It will be months before person number 30 gets it – and when it’s her turn, she has only a limited time frame to get to the library and check it out before it goes to the next person. If she lives out in the country and her dad has the family’s only car at work all day, well, she might not get to read that book. But if it’s available electronically and she can get WiFi at school to download it, then things are looking up for that budding reader. Most people prefer physical books to ebooks, and if the book she wants is in when she visits the library on that rare occasion, great! But if it’s not, downloading it during lunch at school is a good second option, and maybe she’ll find the next book in the series at the library.
6. Ebooks are portable. I love books, and I have a lot of them. Dozens of boxes of them, in fact (we moved last year, which always puts your worldly possessions into perspective). So, too, does my husband. Still, I think everyone should have books at home. Studies have shown that having books at home makes a difference. Here’s the thing: it’s hard to move a lot of books, and living in poverty often means moving around a lot. Even if there were funding to send free books to kids every month like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library does, only on a national level, chances are that the kids who really need those books won’t be able to hold onto them forever. Holding on to one book-sized tablet, though? Way more feasible.
So, please, stop hating on Open Ebooks. This has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of kids who don’t get a lot of breaks. Instead of declaring that it won’t help, spread the word to anyone who could benefit from it. Let’s give all kids a chance to be readers today, leaders tomorrow. How’s that for a cheesy tagline?