Friends of Quinn and LD OnLine: Two good Web sites illustrate need for separate national digital library systems—public and academic

friendsofquinn2Two good Web sites on learning disabilities show the need for separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systems. One system public, one academic.

Neither site is a library’s. Friends of Quinn is a grassroots nonprofit featuring Quinn Bradlee, son of Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee—the legendary society columnist and the Watergate editor. LD OnLine is from WETA, a public broadcasting station in the Washington, D.C., area.

Friends is livelier and folksier. It’s a “must” starting point for any library patron eager to find out about a child’s learning disability or maybe her own.

LD OnLine is stodgier but more comprehensive, and many academics would favor it over Friends. Viva la difference!

In different ways, both sites could help inspire the much-needed Digital Public Library of America effort and what I hope will be its eventual successors, plural.

How do I know that two national digital library systems would be better than “one big tent”? Unavoidably. I wrote about the national digital library issue for the Chronicle of Higher Education and got flamed by academics out of touch with the public library scene. The library world is a hierarchical place. Public librarians and ordinary Americans mustn’t lose out to PhDs and hangers-on who, however brilliant and well intentioned, often fail to grasp the needs of typical library users.

At Libraryjournal.com I told how the book needs of typical public and academic patrons aren’t the same, and later I even suggested that a library nonprofit buy OverDrive, the leading supplier of public library books. But libraries are about much more than books alone. For example, the reference desks at public libraries help people cope with health woes, the financial kind, and other blows. And well-crafted, easy-to-use Web sites, from librarians as well as strategic partners, can back up face-to-face and telephone sessions. Especially if the sites are true communities online, not just arid databases.

Friends of Quinn: An example of the Web possibilities for public libraries

imageThe Friends of Quinn site sparkles with touching, from-the-gut blog posts, as well as visitor questions on the home page. It’s just the ticket for panicked parents and LD children. Check out the introductory video.

Local public libraries and partners could use the Friends of Quinn approach while embedding conspicuous links to more detailed sites elsewhere, especially academic ones.

At Friends, the idea seems to be that the people affected are often the real experts. Civilian contributors heavily outnumber PhDs and MDs. Young Quinn is a constant presence and writes from the heart, the one with which he was born with a hole in it. Quinn suffers from VCFS, a slew of impairments, both physical and cognitive, and he’s author of A Different Life, a book about his challenges. But Friends of Quinn is full of substance, not a mere PR effort to push ADL.

Collaborating with an academic system, a national digital public system could work with local library sites and Friends of Quinn-style partners at different levels to provide the very most trustworthy information while avoiding stodginess. For an example of a local library system already blog-savvy, visit the virtual incarnation of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.

No, in the paragraph above, I’m not saying Friends of Quinn is now full of misinformation; just the contrary, as shown by the practical and easy to understand tips on job interviews, from Henry Reiff, the well-credentialed author of several books on learning disabilities. But surely the site could benefit from the involvement of a bunch of PhDs, MDs, and librarians, not just a few, as long as they respected the community nature of the Quinn site and its need for simple, friendly language.

Guess what Reiff’s byline is at the top of the article. Just “Henry.” I like this informality. At the same time, the site sums up his professional credentials at the end.

With the many positives of Friends of Quinn in mind, educators and librarians should talk it up to people with LDs and their families and friends—as a good introductory site—while also pointing them to the WETA effort for more detailed information.

I showed the Friends site to a retired teacher with special education experience, and she quickly gave it her nod, based on the usefulness and streamlining of the information. But what about recommendations from librarians themselves? Connor, the author of a essay headlined Dyslexia and the Great Outdoors, has a librarian mother. In her shoes, I’d spread the word far and wide if she has not already. Same for a librarian listed on the site, Denise Hasson, who has two children with the same challenge as Connor.

To my surprise, however, when I searched the Friends of Quinn site via Google, I could find no other people there who had used the word “librarian” or “library,” except for just a few nonlibrarian users. What a shame. Libraries should be sending LD-interested people to Friends and vice versa. Now imagine the traffic-drawing possibilities if sites like Friends are built into or at least associated with a public national digital library system. Currently, according to the imprecise but still useful Alexa Web traffic analyzer, Friends has attracted a mere 84 links from other sites.

LD OnLine: Less lively, more detailed—with more of an academic approach

imageCompared to Friends of Quinn, LD OnLine is more text- and expert-heavy—the kind of site that I’d expect from an academic library system even if many and perhaps most of the readers of the WETA-created site are laypeople. It brims with authoritative articles by experts and often for them.

LD Online, however, on the whole, lacks the same verve that enlivens Friends of Quinn even though the former is probably much better funded. The graphics there don’t come within a mile of matching those at Friends (at least not for the general public).

Nor does LD Online offer the option of a type style designed especially for people with dyslexia.

Friends does. And a big link near the top of the home page directs visitors to videos from Quinn and his fans. No such home-page goody shows up at LD OnLine. It also lacks the read-page-aloud feature of Friends (not working, unfortunately, at least on my linux and Windows machines, when I dropped by).

As if that isn’t enough, just consider an article summary on the LD OnLine home page when seen on August 9. “A room-emptier,” Ben Bradlee might say with a loud expletive or two if he were evaluating the summary’s fitness for ordinary library users.

“Successful web surfing and finding the right answers to questions," droned the promo for the lead item, "involves several steps: knowing what you’re looking for, finding a resource, evaluating that resource, and understanding what it says. This helpful article helps us guide students through the process and provides suggestions for getting started."

Ouch! The LD OnLine piece is fine for educators and other professionals working with students with learning problems. But what a letdown for the typical public library patron compared to a wry, brightly written essay that a Friend of Quinn recently shared on her challenges as an intern with LD: "Transcribe…no,no, dyslexic don’t transcribe, we have transcribers. They are called our teacher, tutors and parents." Sure enough, the start of Tori’s essay appeared on Friends’ home page at the same time the dull promo did on the LD OnLine site.

While the LD OnLine site includes grassroot essays and sections for kids and parents, we must drill down past the home page to read the material from actual folks with LD.

Mind you, LD OnLine is still an extraordinarily valuable site, with many times more information than at Friends of Quinn. The Harvard Graduate School of Education is among the more than 4,000 sites linking to it. LD Online is even the official site of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, and I take it for granted that librarians and teachers are talking up LD OnLine because of all the well-educated experts with writings there.

“More than 200,000 parents, teachers, and other professionals” visit LD OnLine “each month.” But that is still just a fraction of the potential audience—several million American schoolchildren, one in 20, suffer learning disabilities (remember, the “several million” excludes adults). The larger the number of parents reading LD-related sites, the more will take their children to doctors for diagnoses. Talk about ways to reduce the dropout rate! And maybe the teen suicide one as well, given the depression that so many LD kids can experience.

But in trying to serve different audiences, everyone from LD professionals to young people with disabilities, LD Online disappoints. It lacks the laserlike focus of Friends on Quinn on the questions of the actual kids and families, as well as the same artful packaging of the facts.

The glories of two separate but intertwined systems

Should Quinn-style sites and LD OnLine ones be at war with each other? No, they are simply for different visitors, despite LD OnLine’s efforts to be everything for everybody. In fact, they could still hugely benefit from collaboration.

In a dream world, LD Online and Friends of Quinn would embed scads of links to the other in items on similar topics. Consider the opportunities to grow Web traffic together. Curious people seeing the LD Online links at Friends could click on them for the most authoritative, most detailed information. At the same time, Friends could retain its folksy approach and emphasis on simple language and personal experiences. The links at Friends could come with tactful warnings for young visitors who would be put off by complicated articles at LD OnLine.

Already the Friends site on its own is planning another wrinkle, the introduction of forums—entirely in keeping with the kid-to-kid, family-to-family focus. These forums could link in with any LD OnLine forums that in the future covered similar territory, and I’d also love to see a joint search option encompassing both sites. But don’t inflict two different communities on each other, not when styles and priorities so directly clash.

If anything, LD OnLine could become even more in-depth than it is currently, knowing that Friends of Quinn would be there for people new to the topic of learning disabilities. Also, as part of a coordinated strategy within library world, LD OnLine could encourage heavy-duty experts to mingle with the people at Friends of Quinn and work to keep the information there as accurate as possible.

For now, the Digital Public Library of America seems more partial to the somewhat more academic LD OnLine approach. Despite improvements and the creation of some terrific public library-related scenarios, the DPLA so far has not cared sufficiently about the packaging of information for public library patrons. I want the very best Web professionals, including those from the mass media world—as well as the use of focus groups reflecting the diversity of America.

Perhaps this will happen. The DPLA’s Request for Proposal for the front end of the related Web site seeks “a skilled interactive agency to design and develop a website to facilitate the creative discovery, sharing and use of multimedia library materials among the general public.”

But then again, the visitors of Friends of Quinn value discussion at least as much as they do the mere “sharing” of “materials.”

While academics, too, can appreciate full interactivity, I doubt they will to the extent that the LD kids at Friends of Quinn do. What appears to be a just a subtle difference may not be so in the end. I say this even if the present DPLA plan is far, far more interactive than its proponents originally envisioned it—good move!—and even if the request for proposals includes phrases like “the general public.”

Public libraries, take heed. A national digital library system can’t optimally deal with such differences merely by allowing customized home pages or Web modules for local libraries. From hiring policies to selection of Web designers and the range of offerings online, public and academic systems should not just fold themselves into “one big tent.”

But how about the needs of an academic national digital library system?

Well, yes, it should be attractively packaged and interactive. But what’s “attractive” for academics—for example, complex search features and pages crammed with links—may not always work out so well for many in the Friends of Quinn circles.

The solution? Create separate public and academic systems with massively shared and well-linked resources—but sufficient independence to respond to the precise needs of their respective users. One well-funded national digital library system blending the two is better than none at all, of course. And having advocated digital library books since the early 1990s, I’m delighted that the DPLA initiative now exists. But in the end, two separate but intertwined systems would truly be nirvana. The pair could share a common technical organization, as well as an advisory coordinating group (also serving as a think tank) while still controlling their own acquisitions and staffing.

The DPLA needn’t do the public-academic split immediately. But it should plan ahead for one.

Note: Of course. The above essay is far more detailed than anything should be for Friends of Quinn or general-interest newspapers, for that matter. But then I’m writing for a different audience.

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