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Second Generation Librarian.

Of course everyone and their mother is talking about e-content nowadays, especially in the wake of the Harper Collins/OverDrive upset. After squawking about e-books enough in my “trends” portion of month-end reports, I was asked by my administration to develop and lead a series of sessions to train staff on the fundamentals of using different kinds of e-readers. I responded to this request by saying “Well, erm… I don’t actually OWN an e-reader, would you like to give me one?” (I didn’t mention I absolutely hated the idea of reading in an electronic environment of any kind, I don’t care how book-like it is.) To my surprise, I got not only one, but several different formats of e-readers (on loan!), including an iPad to train staff. To my even bigger surprise, I didn’t hate reading on an e-reader! After the first series of training was done, I wanted to know more about e-readers, especially how it would affect younger readers, especially those just learning to read and also students who are ‘reading to learn.’

During one particular session at OLA “Is the Medium the Message? E-Readers in the Classroom,” curriculum developers for the local school board recounted success stories of using e-readers in school to encourage students with learning differences to read. One boy used the zoom feature to create enlarged sections of text that were easier for him to focus on and was proud of himself when he read “20 pages” really quickly.  Other librarians reported purchasing Kobos in order to entice reluctant readers into book clubs.  More interesting, at least from my early-literacy-loving point of view, is how e-content is effecting the way that reading itself is changing. How we have moved from the reader deriving meaning from text as a static object to decoding text that is laden with other layers of meaning that is programmed into what you are reading. Don’t know what a word means? Look it up in the handy dictionary linked to the text file on your e-reader. Want to reference another article that’s readily available online? Link to that reference and your reader is a click away from a deeper understanding of context. On Kindle – readers can annotate portions of the text, but also have available to them the notes of other readers of the same text! This gives readers the unique opportunity to compare their ideas and sections of import with people from around the world (in theory). I am not a teacher, but my knee-jerk reaction was “SWEET. Let’s get right on it! Let’s make it part of the curriculum! Let’s make a comparison assignment based on the notes you find in a Kindle text!” But the majority of the more vocal teacher-librarians in the room were skeptical if not downright hostile to this type of reading. But what happens to education when some children are reading texts that are inherently richer than others based on what they are able to do?

In my personal experience, exposing children to e-readers doesn’t necessarily have to be an either/or scenario – we can love books just as much as we love e-books. We can introduce children to one format by way of another. Your reluctant reader might not love books, but loves gadgetry – e-Readers or Tumblebooks might be a better avenue to introduce literacy than a book. Conversely, your avid reader might not want to take 50 lbs. worth of print on a vacation – easy solution – the e-Reader.  “Finding the right tool” for any given child should be the goal in order to make reading meaningful, and we should embrace whatever format motivates children to read. But whether or not you agree this is a useful feature is not entirely the point – I think the discussion around whether electronic texts are changing the very act of reading is significant when viewed through a social lens.

How will this impact the future of the education of my non-existant children???  According to a teacher in the session (who, admittedly, I only half-heard), a local enormous school board has supposedly made the commitment to provide their textbooks at the not-so-distant future in (primarily?) e-format. And how will the children get access to these lovely e-format materials? Furthermore, if e-readers truly are the ticket to encouraging reading in those who have difficulty or lack desire then how do we ensure that children in at-risk communities get the tools they need to succeed in school?  What about the communities who can’t afford the technology, the administration or teachers who are wary of it or infrastructures that don’t support such items? Are we relegating children to second-rate educations based upon a trend?

While I understand educational institutions being more cautious with the “wait and see” game – after all, do we want to experiment with technology with the future success of children at stake? – do libraries have to be so conservative? I would say – of course not. After all, in addition to helping frazzled parents with last-minute assignments on pioneer village life, we also have an obligation to try to provide access to information and technology. We can be the hip substitute teacher that swoops in à la Jaime Escalante and LouAnne Johnson and teaches the class of misfits to be information literate using rap! Okay, well maybe not rap. How about e-readers? Oh, and actually make sure that people have access to the technology in question. I’m currently making a request that as part of curriculum I’m developing for Summer Reading book clubs that the participants be allowed access to the iPads that the library bought for the purpose of training. While children in my branch generally are very well-off and could possible have iPads of their own, this experience might be something that the customers at the at risk branches in the system would really value. We’ll see what happens, but you don’t know until you ask. “Come learn about iPads at your library.” “Come borrow an e-reader and see if you like it.” Once again, we have the opportunity to be a institution turned social equalizer and we should seize it.

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