At the end of June, I had the honor of being on a panel at the national ALA (American Library Association) conference in Chicago, IL. Originally I was going to prepare a video or be available remotely by Skype, but at the last minute I decided to visit the windy city, stay with a dear friend and make a little vacation of the whole thing. Chicago was especially lovely, with unseasonably cool weather, so I spent a fair amount of time on foot exploring. It was also a crazy time for parades in the city, fresh from their Blackhawks win and during Pride weekend, making hailing a cab more difficult. All that walking was good for thinking but not so good for hauling things, so the genius of digital books was particularly on my mind.
Exhibits and More …
I also spent many hours wandering around the cavernous exhibit hall booths in addition to meeting with bookish people like the librarian contributors to @LittleeLit‘s blog and ‘think tank’. In person introductions are particularly sweet, after months of contact over email, video-chat, Twitter and other digital means. Meeting others so like-minded probably represents one of the most energizing aspects of attending any large conference. And librarians are one energized group! I found nearly everyone in attendance to be sharp, thoughtful and focused on the future of libraries in the digital age. The conversations were simply abuzz about new ‘technology’ everywhere I went. While sitting at lunch by myself in a cafe over a mile from the convention center I overheard two librarians heatedly comparing the digital initiatives in their two library systems.
In the exhibit hall, there were several large spaces set aside for digital technology, ebooks and even apps. Nearly every booth also had a digital offering, from apps that integrated into their service or product for library management to eBooks in every format. However there was very little to be found about any stand-alone book apps nor much in the way of interactive book or educational software offerings for kids. I know my focus on children’s apps is somewhat singular in the publishing industry, but the lack of discussion or even an understanding of the difference between an ebook, app and bookstore portal was disheartening.
Either my focus is misplaced, leaving me out-of-step, or the industry (publishers, libraries, authors, etc.) itself is missing something. Several people asked me about my site and if I would review or promote their digital book offerings. When I explained that I only review apps, they seemed more bewildered than disappointed. I explained that so far, I couldn’t get enough traction with consumers for an iBookstore review site, and while the Kindle eBook market is much more developed, the market for illustrated children’s content is still in a somewhat embryonic stage. No one seemed to be very sophisticated in their understanding of the industry with regard to digital, but everyone seemed at least engaged in the digital shift in one way or another.
Overall, my impression was that librarians in attendance, and most of those presenting, were engaged, passionate and ready to face a digital future. This was in huge contrast to the publishers and other exhibitors who seemed to show-off a singular naïveté or perhaps ignorance, about format, access, consumer interest and other emerging aspects of the digital publishing industry. As a relative newbie to this ecosystem, I was surprised to find myself explaining (or correcting) misconceptions about digital formats, self-publishing, social media marketing and even COPPA regulations, to people who should be much more informed than I am.
My panel presentation was early in the weekend, a ‘Conversation Starter’ entitled: “Building A to Zoo for Apps: Time-tested librarian skills meet cutting edge technology for kids” and featured talented librarians:
Sarah Houghton, Director, San Rafael Public Library
Allison Rose Tran, Teen Services Librarian, Mission Viejo Library
Cen Campbell, Founder, Littleelit.com
Trista Kunkel, Youth Services Librarian, Birchard Public Library
plus special guest:
Chip Donahue, Senior Fellow at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning & Children’s Media and Director of Technology in Early Childhood at the Erikson Center.
and a video presentation from Lisa Guernsey, Director, Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation
Conversation starters at the ALA are “fast-paced 45-minute sessions intended to jumpstart conversations and highlight emerging topics and trends.” The purpose of this session was to start a conversation within the library community about the best way to approach the curation and evaluation of digital content, like apps, for young children.
What should the role for apps be in libraries? Should they be used in storytimes and if so, why? How can librarians contribute to the evaluation of apps and provide useful information to caregivers, teachers and others seeking information about quality digital content for tablet devices? Should librarians even be recommending apps at all?
A nice summary of our presentation can be found on the @LittleeLit blog by librarian Amy Koester. Or you can watch the whole thing in this video on youtube:
Suffice it to say that 45 minutes was simply not enough time to answer more than a few questions and barely scratched the surface of the conversation that is brewing in the world of children’s early learning and library services. A lot of strong opinions exist about digital content for young kids, especially regarding ‘screen time’ and apps. But the interest in this content is strong among librarians, as evidenced by the overflowing standing-room-only crowd in attendance.
Conversation Started – Trending Topics
Among the most important take-aways from this conversation we’ve started are a series of new questions we must ask ourselves as adults who guide, choose and judge digital content for kids:
- How do we evaluate, curate or recommend apps and other digital media on tablets?
- How do we even decide what to evaluate and what to ignore in a sea of content much too large to cover exhaustively?
- How would evaluations from librarians in particular differ from and add to the already large number of online resources currently available for app reviews (including private review sites, non-profit sites, consumer reviews and a sea of blogs from professionals and laypeople).
- What qualities of an app would be important to librarians when evaluating?
- How would app evaluations differ from the curation already done for print materials or other digital content?
- What are the critical differences between evaluating, reviewing, recommending and curating apps or other digital content for librarians/professionals?
- What resources, rubrics or other evaluation tools are available for professionals to explore before beginning their own app reviews?
- What role should libraries and librarians play in the digital shift?
- Should librarians recommend, model or advise caregivers and professionals about wise use of quality media for kids or primarily discourage ‘screen time’? Is this role different for toddlers under two, children under five or other age groups, like teenagers?
- How can professionals find good age & stage recommendations for library programs & collections?
In the end, my biggest realization was an anti-climatic epiphany. As I wracked my brain to think of all the ways we might create a resource that an army of librarians could fill in to make relevant and thoughtful, I was also struck by the need to include something more than just curation in my grand plan for library-land … the need for education. Of course we know teachers, librarians and other professionals need training on how to incorporate these digital tools into existing programs and services, but we also need a large scale education effort for the general public.
Much like the world wide web presented us with a sea of content that went beyond our usual ways of cataloging, the sea of publications coming into our digital space may be more than anyone can wrangle into a single resource. There is no equivalent for the web to the ‘yellow pages’ for local business phone numbers, for instance. In a similar vein, there may not be anyway that anyone could truly create the equivalent of “A to Zoo” for kids apps. A to Zoo for Apps can’t help but be inspired by the past, but the real challenge will be making it novel and adaptable to the new digital environment of the 21st century. It appears to be a challenge that is both momentous and exhilarating!
These questions are just a few I heard, among many burning in the hearts and minds of those who attended ALA 2013 and our presentation. We will be working hard to keep this dialog going among librarians in particular and I’ll keep you posted as the conversation continues. Please let me know any questions or comments you might like to add!