When I was a little kid learning to read, every book I encountered was in print. I was in high school before I read an e-book and the iPad didn’t come into play until I was in university. It is difficult for me to picture my favorite childhood stories splayed over a screen instead of a printed page. I think back to my mom reading to me when I was young and cannot picture her holding an e-reader instead of a physical book. There is a nostalgia that encompasses these memories and makes it difficult to accept the very real change that has happened to childhood today: the screen.
Working as a server, I see it constantly; a family squishes into a booth and one child holds his hands out for the tablet. Children are learning to use technology before many other childhood milestones. A 2010 study by AVG claims that “more small children can play a computer game than ride a bike” (AVG Now). Yet, out of all categories of books, children’s literature has remained largely untouched by the e-book trend, with print sales actually growing (Nowell).
A 2016 article by Alison Flood discusses how many parents (the actual customers for children’s books) are concerned about the amount of time children spend reading on digital devices. Of the 1500 UK parents surveyed, 92% acknowledged some apprehension around their child’s use of digital media and e-books. Flood explains how “some parents think digital reading has no place in shared family life. They think they might contaminate [children’s] reading experiences if they endorse digital books.” While I have every sympathy for the sense of loss parents feel when their children prefer a screen over a page, I do believe that the digitization of children’s literature has a very important role to play.
Though I am not convinced that traditional children’s books should be abandoned, I do believe that the digitization of children’s literature can have benefits both for children and for the book industry. Making children’s stories available digitally can open up access and even shape what kind of children’s literature is being created.
Opening Access to Children’s Literature
During September of 2015, world leaders met in New York and set seventeen Global Goals to be met by 2030. Among other ambitious goals, such as putting an end to world poverty and hunger, was global internet connectivity. The major push for connectivity stems from the argument that the internet brings an indiscriminate access to knowledge. On the action plan’s website, Eloise Todd argues, “Connectivity can mean that people living in poverty are empowered to make their own decisions, to have access to nutritious food, a home, and to be free to express their opinions.”
Not mentioned in this argument is the potential for global internet access to increase world literacy rates by providing unprecedented access to children’s literature. According to the UN 17% of the world’s adult population and 122 million youth around the world are not literate. Even in North America, literacy rates have remained stagnant. A 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy found 14% of US adults were below a basic reading level, and only 13% were considered “proficient” readers. One cause of the low literacy rates may be a lack of access to literature. A 2001 study found that even when people living in low-income communities can afford to purchase children’s books, they may have trouble even finding them in stores. One Philadelphia community had a ratio of one children’s book for sale to every 300 children (Neuman, 17).
In 1999, another study looked at the relationship between literacy and access to children’s literature. Researchers provided high-quality children’s books to impoverished child-care programs in Pennsylvania and found that the close proximity of books to children learning to read can support early literacy development (Neuman, 288), begging the question “How can we expose children to greater quantities of print and meaningful language opportunities at a very early age…?” (Neuman, 289).
Despite being called the World Wide Web, in 1999 the internet reached only 4.1% of the world population, compared to approximately 49.2% today (Internet World Stats). It is unlikely that the internet would have appeared to Neuman at that time as a realistic solution to her question. Yet, by 2007, Google had partnered with libraries to digitize a million titles (Mass Digitization). Today, most books are made available immediately in both digital and print formats.
Today’s Digital Collections of Children’s Literature
At the moment, only a few digital libraries stand out for their commitment to providing access to children’s literature, specifically.
Children’s Books Online: The Rosetta Project began as early as 1996 and is a website run by volunteers with the goal of supporting access to antique illustrated children’s literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The website is still operating today, but it is difficult to navigate and needlessly chaotic with clip-art style pictures and animations. Despite these downfalls, in 2001 Children’s Books Online was the largest collection of digital children’s books, providing access to 83 titles (Druin, 2).
In 2002, a research team from the University of Maryland partnered with the Internet Archive to create The International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL), as a response to a perceived lack of online access to children’s literature, and viewing Children’s Books Online as the best available option at that time. The ICDL began with 183 books from 14 countries, and today provides free access to over 4000 fully digitized books in 59 languages, with the goal of promoting compassion and encouraging children to explore cultures different from their own. The website for the ICDL is far more user friendly than Children’s Books Online, with easy navigation for young users and the ability for both parents and children to register accounts so they can track their reading and select a preferred language. The ICDL has been a major movement towards opening access to children’s literature around the globe.
While I have so far only discussed free digital collections of children’s books, there are also some subscription-based services that fill a similar void. One example of this type of digital library is the website Epic!,which offers unlimited reading for $4.99/month. While not free, Epic! contains over 15000 titles, making it over three times the size of the ICDL. The reason subscription-services can offer so many more titles is because they are able to pay for titles not in the public domain. While I will not further discuss the ongoing war between copyright law and open access efforts, it is important to note that copyright is perhaps the largest obstacle to the ultimate goal of so many of the projects I’ve discussed thus far: to provide global access to knowledge and literature.
The Potential of Digital Children’s Libraries to Alter What is Being Produced
Online digital libraries are not only important for the access they provide. They are also responsible for changing the type of literature being produced, including children’s literature. This is happening in a variety of ways.
Some of these projects provide financial incentives for creators and the model for these incentives can shape the content being produced for children.
Magic Blox, for example, came into existence in 2009, and like that of the ICDL, its mission statement involves allowing children to find books from other countries, and thereby learn about foreign cultures and languages. Magic Blox forms a sort of bridge between open-access and subscription-based models by allowing anyone one free read per month, but offering unlimited access on a pay-per-month basis. Rather than providing access to currently published titles, the way Epic! does, Magic Blox uniquely works with a “global Creator Community of authors and publishers” to provide new titles daily. This means that authors and illustrators are creating works specifically for the Magic Blox website, which in turn shares profits with the creators based on the “monthly reading performance” of each book.
So, how does this effect what kind of content is being written? It has to do with how the reading performance is measured. Each month, Magic Blox pools 50% of its revenues and distributes these to the creators based on the percentage of unique reads each book has. So, a creator will need to get her work read by as many different accounts as possible, and this is where the model of the digital library may begin to shape the work that is being produced. Magic Blox features a “Trending Now” list that would be a popular feed through which young readers and parents discover new books. If getting on the “Trending Now” list is the best means for creators to profit from their work, this could significantly alter the work being created for Magic Blox, leading to a lot of like-minded English stories about animals and Caucasian children (judging by the current list). Ironically, this result works directly against Magic Blox’s mission of exposing young readers to different cultures and perspectives.
Other projects can alter the themes of emerging children’s literature by raising awareness about niche audiences in the market and previously unexplored content demands. These digital resources have the opposite effect of Magic Blox. Instead of encouraging homogeneous content, they point out areas where there is not currently enough content to meet the demand, or where the content that does exist is not easily discoverable.
One strong example of this is the app We Read Too, created by computer science student Kaya Thomas in 2014. While We Read Too does not contain digital copies of books, it is a directory that contains information on over 600 titles. In a recorded presentation on We Read Too at the 2016 BookNet Tech Forum, Thomas describes her childhood struggle to find children’s books by and about people of colour.
“Millions of children and teens of colour have few options when it comes to finding books that are written by someone of their same background or a book that features characters that look like them,” she explained.
Thomas began working on We Read Too in an effort to help today’s young readers find and read books written by people of colour, or featuring characters of colour. She manually found and entered information on each of the first 300 books in the app, due to the fact that there is no metadata about author ethnicity. Users are now able to suggest books to add to the directory.
We Read Too has the power to change what kinds of books are being produced for children by indicating to publishers and creators a niche segment in this market that is currently undersupplied and in demand. The We Read Too directory helps readers locate, and thus purchase, books about and by a minority group, and in doing so, creates more demand for those titles. By shining a spotlight on this void in the market, We Read Too can impact how much children’s literature by people of colour is being produced and consumed. We Read Too may not offer children’s titles digitally, but it does show an online need for digital access to books about minorities or targeted to minority audiences.
I would like to finish by restating that I am not recommending that everyone should go digital and abandon the physical children’s book. Rather, like most decisions involving the internet, it is a case of moderation. I believe consumers need to respect what both mediums have to offer. Digital libraries can be an excellent way to discover new works and to expose children to types of stories that are not readily available in their school libraries, such as stories in different languages or about different cultures. I believe digital libraries need (and in many ways, already have) to recognize that parents are not going to give up their nostalgia for children’s books any time soon, and that the goal cannot be to replace physical libraries entirely. Instead, digital libraries should continue doing what they do best, providing solutions to the very real problems of access and discovery in niche markets.
AVG. “Forget Swimming and Riding a Bike.” AVG Now. 19 Jan. 2010, http://now.avg.com/forget-swimming-and-riding-a-bike/
British History Online. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/
Children’s Books Online. “About_Rosetta.” http://www.childrensbooksonline.org/About_Rosetta.htm
The Digital Comic Museum. http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/index.php?dlid=18254
Druin, Allison, et al. “The International Children’s Digital Library: Description and Analysis of First Use.” University of Maryland. Jan. 2003, http://hcil2.cs.umd.edu/trs/2003-02/2003-02.pdf.
Epic! “About Us.” https://www.getepic.com/
Flood, Alison. “Majority of parents worried about children’s digital reading, survey finds.” The Guardian. 11 Feb. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/11/most-parents-worried-about-childrens-digital-reading-survey-booktrust
International Digital Children’s Library. “Background.” http://en.childrenslibrary.org/about/background.shtml
Magic Blox. “How It Works.” http://magicblox.com/how-it-works
Neuman, Susan B. “Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities: An Ecological Study of Four Neighborhoods.” Reading Research Quarterly 36.1 (2001): 8-26. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~sbneuman/pdf/AccessToPrint.pdf
Neuman, Susan B. “Books Make a Difference: A Study of Access to Literature.” Reading Research Quarterly 34.3 (1999): 286-311, https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/media/users/sn1150/BooksMakeADifference.pdf
Nowell, Jonathan. “Children’s Print Book Sales Buck the Trend.” Publishers Weekly. 16 Apr. 2015, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/66291-children-s-print-book-sales-buck-the-trend.html
Mass Digitization. http://massdigitization.com/
Project Gutenberg. https://archive.org/details/gutenberg
Statistic Brain. “Illiteracy Statistics.” Statistic Brain. 22 Aug. 2016, http://www.statisticbrain.com/number-of-american-adults-who-cant-read/
Thomas, Kaya. “Tech as Equalizer: We Read Too.” BookNet Tech Forum 2016, April 1 2016, https://booknetcanada.wistia.com/medias/xy1tqjtruv
Todd, Eloise. “Connecting everyone: Internet access for all by 2030.” One. 27 Sept. 2015, https://www.one.org/us/2015/09/27/connecting-everyone-internet-access-for-all-by-2030/
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Statistics on Literacy,” UNESCO, 2016, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/education-building-blocks/literacy/resources/statistics
The Universal Digital Library. http://www.ulib.org/