How a national digital library system could help promote early childhood learning—and academic and vocational success later on

“People need people to learn, at least when they’re young.”

Toddlers at a kid-low wooden table—drinking orange juice. Four decades later, as a ex-poverty beat reporter, I still remember that scene from the Head Start program for an Ohio factory town.

The juice made sense, given the long-known link between nutrition, brain development, and learning in the crucial early years.

And how about other determinants of future academic success aside from the quality of the teachers and other directly school-related matters? What about the number and variety of words a child hears at home from parents, for example, in the first years of life? 30,000 words a day, the equivalent of 18 readings of Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, is a “magic number.”

imageSimply put, whether paper or electronic, books by themselves are not enough as literacy promoters. Don’t forget the OJ.

But could the right kind of national digital public library system, blended in well with local schools, libraries, healthcare, Head Start, and other childcare activities, make a difference in such interrelated areas as nutrition, vocabulary development, and other early childhood learning? Should we care about use of the technology for learning even before elementary and high school, while accelerating efforts at those levels, too? And could such a national system, ideally working closely with the federal and state educational agencies, be one way to help local libraries, museums, and other organizations fit together all the pieces?

Absolutely. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan correctly regards “high-quality early learning programs” as “one of the most cost-effective investments America can make in its future.” Major research suggests the same. And I’d hope that Americans of all political stripes could see the e-library possibilities as more than a partisan issue, just as the late William F. Buckley, Jr., did in the early 1990s when he was talking up the idea of a universal national digital library system, with young people’s needs especially in mind. These are extraordinary times. A record 46 million Americans are living in poverty, not all but many of them for want of adequate reading skills. My enthusiasm continues for e-library efforts to help elementary, high school, and college students, workers, business people, and researchers, as well as others, including the elderly. But a preschool e-initiative particularly excites me, based on my poverty-beat memories, Duncan’s interest in that age range, and the declining costs of the related technology. Here’s how a national digital system could help early childhood literacy and other learning, a prerequisite if students are live up to their full potentials as learners, citizens, and future workers.

image1. First off, the system should strive to efficiently popularize the best teachings on literacy and learning in general, for the benefits of parents, educators, librarians, and literacy volunteers. Handing out tablets to disadvantaged families won’t suffice by itself. They and others should benefit from guidance and encouragement, including the in-person kind. Hardware is no substitute for good strategy and well-informed and caring professionals and volunteers at the local level. Whether from universities, publishers, libraries, or government educational agencies, the right knowledge should be online in appropriate forms, including multimedia for parents who themselves either can’t read or can barely do so. Far from making traditional family literacyefforts obsolete, a national digital library should be part of them.

2. Think of pediatric healthcare—both the private and public varieties—as a learning gateway. This would jibe with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents read “to their children every day, starting after they are first born.” In AAP’s words, “reading stimulates the development of the brain, language and a closer emotional relationship with a child.” Some literacy boosters have even arranged for well-baby clinics to hand out books to young mothers and fathers to encourage them to read to their children.

But literacy programs and clinics shouldn’t just distribute physical books to spark interest interest in reading. Ideally they or other organizations will also help parents and children benefit from e-book-friendly tablets, able to call up digital picture books and countless other items. Remember, fathers and mothers are their offspring’s main role models in early life. Access to enough of the right books, moreover, can help boost chances of academic success and other achievements by young and old alike. Beyond that, the better read a parent is, the more accomplished he or she can be as a conversationalist, thereby enriching a child’s vocabulary and knowledge (words themselves can go only so far without the contexts in which they pop up). As part of a national library and educational initiative, we should also expand efforts to test children for hearing and visual impairments and others potential barriers to learning. Too, we should help them benefit from the appropriate e-book technology. E-book tech is like hearing aids: no single choice is optimal for all, and we should think of parents as well as children. How likely is a mother to read to a daughter or son if she herself has problems? She might benefit not just from human tutoring but also from well-targeted digital content and just the right size of screen, or optimized margins and colors for text and background.

3. Beyond the use of physical books to help draw the children in, the tablet-related program should also provide artwork from books and with other tangibles that parents could use to remind young children of the existence of the e-books. Let images from Dr. Seuss be on the walls, not just on the screens. When possible, the electronic and physical should be used to reinforce each other. The Digital Public Library of America is lucky enough to have attracted the interest of the Smithsonian and other major museums, which might help create appropriate posters and provide other physical objects—in addition to making images available electronically. What’s more, childcare centers, schools, libraries, and museums can work together to help relate books and other content to young children’s surroundings, whether this means glaciers, cacti, lakes, or old buildings (with historical figures or others to read about).

image4. No, a national digital library system should not be in the tablet-making business. But it can work with local schools and libraries to come up with technical and physical standards for the equipment and encourage policymakers to use tax breaks and other strategies to help get the right equipment into the hands of cash-strapped young families and other appropriate recipients, perhaps with some aid from philanthropies and the corporate sector.

India is using $35 subsidized tablets to try to leapfrog ahead despite the scarcity of paper books there; and, yes, it’s at least striving to make wireless connectivity ubiquitous, even for the poor. Can’t we do the same for Americans needing the equipment, connections, and various forms of support, including the content-related variety? In the early 1990s I was pushing the concept of low-cost and free color-tablets able to hook into vast library collections, with the government aggressively nudging the private side to drive down prices. How ironic a that Third World country is beating us to it with a $35 user cost, $15 less than than the $50 models I envisioned! The price of iPad-type technology will be falling anyway. But the right national strategy could help this happen faster.

My $200 Kindle Fire arrived an hour or two ago. I haven’t opened the package—this essay first!—but from what I’ve read, it will function very efficiently as a cash register in disguise for those of us lucky enough to afford books and movies from Amazon. I want the Fire, iPads, and other popular commercial devices to work with a national digital library system. But at the same time, for young families and others, can’t we encourage the development of standards-compliant, less-proprietary tablets with Amazon-seamless integration of hardware and content? Shouldn’t a virtual museum exhibit be as easy for a young family to call up as a rock album on the Fire or iPad? And with the right blend of hardware, software and content, wouldn’t people be more inclined than otherwise to use library-oriented social networks? Suppose the Digital Public Library of America helped tablet vendors to come up with firmware or at least individual apps to make this possible.

But what’s happening now? Well, commendably, the Federal Communications has convinced the cable industry and others to offer discounts on desktop, laptops and Net connections for students in low-income families; but what’s the point if this simply means more YouTubing and Facebooking? There is a place for the frivolous, even in libraries; in fact, especially  in libraries—let’s remember the role of many best-selling books in promoting literacy. But many commercial offerings online, including social networks, are designed to push goods and services, not knowledge. And like it or not, whether for young families or others, libraries need to think about creating complete ecosystems for people who value simplicity of access. Besides, who says the FCC-encouraged discounts are here to stay? Comcast is apparently obliged to enroll new participants only for three school years. Too bad. There is an ongoing need for this blend of hardware and connectivity. Minority and rural use of broadband tends to lag badly behind use by other groups, and the technology is constantly shifting. Ideally libraries will touch bases with Connect to Compete, an offshoot of One Economy, to coordinate and expand efforts while making certain that the program truly meets the needs of the public and libraries. Also, one tablet per household is not enough. We should drive down the costs to allow parents and children to enjoy their own—the better to nudge mothers and fathers into reading for their genuine enjoyment, not just to inspire their offspring.

5. The library-optimized tablets should not be used just for reading and other culture, but also to transmit child-rearing, health, nutrition, and job-training-and-finding information, and other essentials to young parents, in the spirit of the valuable Text4Baby, which not only imparts knowledge but jogs mothers and fathers about medical appointments. Let Text4Baby thrive. But remember that tablets, especially through multimedia, can convey far more information than can the small screens on cellphones. Home visits by nurses can help, too, and I see tablets as a way to improve not just education but also facilitate communications during the crucial prenatal period. Keep in mind, of course, that information is not necessarily a substitute for other resources; for example, nutrition information per se can't replace food in a baby's stomach. However, it can make the mother more likely to avail herself of food programs and shop better at the local grocery store. Beyond imparting valuable information and facilitating literacy, the tablets could serve other purposes. With built-in stands and optional keyboards, the tablets could be used for small business—one way to help cost-justify the technology in certain cases.

6. While encouraging young families and others to visit local libraries in person—through online promotion of story readings, author appearances, and other events—librarians should do more reaching out. Put yourself in place of so many of today’s young parents, with so many holding down two or even three jobs. Is it fair to expect frequent library visits from tired mothers and fathers who are both time-and-cash-strapped? One possibility for receptive parents would be for more house calls from teachers and—when resources allowed—even from librarians. Or at least phone interviews. In the e-library era, let’s focus less on turnstile counts and more on the actual availability and absorption of knowledge and culture. I’m aware of the costs, but at least on a small scale, couldn’t local libraries experiment with concept of family librarians who would take time to talk to parents and children and determine their precise information needs, then alert them to the right resources online and in the library—ideally in old fashioned, voice-related ways on occasion, rather than just relying on automated e-mail jogs? Daycare providers, grandparents, and volunteers could serve at least as imperfect parental-substitutes when parents themselves were not available to read to the children and help them otherwise benefit. A national digital library system, in collaboration with leading librarians, educators and academics, could help devise templates for action that local libraries and others could adapt, if inclined, in this case and other case.

7. In additional ways, too, with young families in mind, libraries should adjust to the new electronic realities—for example, through use of free resources, such as the picture books available from the International Children’s Digital Library, whose offerings could be blended into a national system. Libraries in the future should devote a much higher percentage of their acquisition budgets to e-books (ideally a national digital library system could bill local and state libraries by their ability to pay). When we improve hardware availability and connectivity for the disadvantaged—I’ll be an optimist!—e-books will be far, far a more democratic use of library resources than are paper books. If nothing else, e-books expire automatically, ending the need for low-income families to worry about fines. I’m not saying that libraries should toss out paper books overnight. But if they fail to make the electronic transition quickly enough, they will leave themselves increasingly open to attacks from Bill Mahrer and others questioning the very need for public libraries. Libraries mustn’t be like newspapers, which forgot that they are in the news business, not the newspaper business, and went E too late.

In reading the above, you’ll notice that my focus is on a general-purpose public digital library system. This is no accident. I want to see the creation of both a National Digital Library of America for the public at large and a Scholarly Digital Library of America for academia even though the two systems would be tightly intertwined and everyone could use either. The current DPLA could work out spinoffs. With two systems, it would be much, much easier to serve the needs of subcategories of users, such as young children and their parents. More on this in another posting.

But where to get the money for a early-childhood-learning initiative for the electronic era—as well as for K-12-related e-library activities in general?

David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, very sensibly told the DPLA at a plenary meeting in Washington, D.C., that K-12 was where Congress might be especially likely to be willing to oblige (listen to him around seven hours and 31 minutes into this video-recording). In fact, section 4.5 of Designing a Digital Future, a report from a White House-organized taskforce on a $3-billion initiative, refers to the challenges “from early childhood education through adulthood.” I’m glad that the report mentions early childhood, but I’d like to see more specifics spelled out. As important as it is to develop “fluency” in, say, “computational thinking,” we mustn’t forget the old-fashioned kind of verbal, mathematical, and social abilities and others that will pave the way for excellence in a many occupations and fields, computer science included. And it all begins with children’s readiness to learn—early childhood, in other words. Susan Hildreth, a DPLA steering committee member as well as director of Institute of Museum and Library Services, which awards grants to innovative library projects as part of its mission, sounded open-minded when I suggested experiments with ruggedized tablets as an information delivery mechanisms around which local librarians in partnership with others could build a variety of services that a national digital library system could enhance. Receptive, too, was Peggy Rudd, Texas state librarian and co-chair of DPLA’s audience and participation workstream. Dwight McInvaill, director of the innovative library system in Georgetown County, S.C., which has a high illiteracy rate, also is intrigued by the idea of tablets for early childhood education and other purpose-driven applications.

Might Georgetown be a potential testbed for the concept, along with some rural Texas towns—and maybe, too, the Fairfax County Public Library in Northern Virginia, near me, which has a interest in E books and also in early literacy? Those are just a few examples of local library systems that, working with others in the public, nonprofit, and corporate sectors, perhaps can follow up with childhood-literacy proposals that recognize the need for the right mix of librarianship, tech, and OJ. Rather than waiting for the precise organizational structure of the DPLA or equivalents to be worked out, and for the full national digital library system to be built, we should already be thinking of related innovations in early childhood literacy and other areas. For want of a better term, maybe we could say “E-Toddler Initiative,” except that children are hardly electronic. They respond best to parents and other humans, and while improved drill-and-kill machines won’t hurt, the real benefits here will come from tech-aided empowerment of the people dearest to them.

11 a.m., Nov. 15, 2011: This is a first edition of a living document—I may be tweaking. Corrections and other suggestions welcome! And please feel free to share your own insights on the issue of tablets for early childhood education and the related guidance and other services for users.

12 p.m., Nov. 16: Speaking of the DPLA, congratulations to Harvard Law Prof. John Palfrey, DPLA steering committee chair, on his appointment as the 15th Head of School at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He’ll continue as DPLA chair. Meanwhile his mother, Harvard Pediatrics Prof. Dr. Judith Palfrey, MD, formerly president of the American Pediatrics Association, has become the executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative against obesity. I’m hardly the word’s biggest advocate of all-in-the-family government, but in this case, I’d love to see if the Palfreys can’t follow up in D.C. on the health-and-reading angles discussed above.

Related: Comments by Nate Hill, San Jose librarian and blogger for the Public Library Association, in connection with the National Digital Public Library conference in Los Angeles (some NDPL Twitter comments here). I especially appreciated Nate’s interest in DPLA activities that could quickly benefit public library users, including content-creation kiosks. Whatever form the activities take, either through the DPLA itself or separate public and academic library systems or local ones, Nate’s priorities on the whole are excellent and certainly would tie in with my own enthusiasm and others’ for bridging the gap between the physical and virtual. May the DPLA heed Nate’s warnings not to let API planning come ahead of interfaces and actual applications for humans! We need efforts in all these areas. Nate would probably disagree, but this is yet another example of why I believe both the public and scholarly sides should work closely together but control their own priorities, through two separate national digital library systems.

Update, January 2 and 4, 2012: I'm remind that some librarians are already trying to give individualized service to families at home.  But how many of the families most in need of the service are being helped? And couldn't the availability of tablets mean new possibilities?

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