Family literacy and K-12 success: How a well-stocked public e-library system for the U.S. could help our students catch up with ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’

smartestkidsvideoAmanda Ripley, who has written on education for Time Magazine and the Atlantic, is out with a new book that might upset some traditional PTA stalwarts and other boosters of after-school activities if they don’t pick up the nuances here.

No, Ms. Ripley, a fellow at the New American Foundation, isn’t anti-PTA.

She appreciates “the contributions” that a local PTA chapter can make to a “school’s culture, budget, and sense of community.”

But in The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (video here), she asks whether American mothers and fathers shouldn’t increase time for another activity—enjoying books on their own, not just reading to their children:

SmartestKidsintheWorldRipley9.12“What if schools, instead of pleading with parents to donate time, muffins, or money, loaned books and magazines to parents and urged them to read on their own and talk about what they’d read in order to help their kids? The evidence suggested that every parent could do things that helped create strong readers and thinkers, once they knew what those things were.”

K-12-related volunteering, granted, is far from the biggest reason why reading claims so little of American parents’ leisure time. It’s almost surely TV.

Still, Ms. Ripley is so, so correct to write of role models and intellectual stimulus. Real Housewives of New Jersey and NFL football aren’t the best brain-sharpeners for parents or offspring. Small wonder that the average 15-to-19-year-old in the U.S devotes just 6 minutes or so to reading, out of 5.1 hours of daily leisure time.

A well-stocked digital library system vs. casual loans of paper books and magazines

Ms. Ripley’s book does not discuss LibraryCity’s goals of a national digital library endowment and the establishment of two separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systems—one academic, one public, so that family literacy does not get lost in the shuffle. I have no idea where Ms. Ripley would stand on the national digital library issue, but I love The Smartest Kids in the World. She calls for better chosen, better trained teachers as well as more rigorous curricula. Family literacy is just one of many topics covered. Still, her mention of it ties in well with LibraryCity’s priorities.

Family literacy and the related recreational reading count endlessly, whether books are paper and ink or swarms of electrons. And not just learning-to-read family literacy. Parents’ efforts should go on right up to the day students leave for college, and this is where public libraries, serving all ages, have a special role to play—being able to accommodate both adults and young people, even though we also need school libraries.

Making digital-library-priority issues all the more timely is this month’s request by the university-dominated Digital Public Library of America for E-Rate money, and later in the post I’ll explain why public libraries should back the DPLA to the max as long as it honors certain important conditions.

But first here’s more on the potential of a national public e-library system as a cost-effective booster of family literacy.

Family literacy and the cognitive glories of recreational reading

pisachartThe Smartest Kids in the World justifiably attacks wasteful spending on technology. But here we are talking about affordable e-book-capable devices—well under $100 if need be—and other ways of giving families more books from public libraries at much less per book if we don’t neglect the business issues. We must go well beyond loans of paper books and magazines.

Especially, American families deserve more library books matching their precise needs and interests in line with the Five Laws of Library Science. Smarter parents, more gung-ho on books, can mean more stimulating conversations at home and, yes, smarter children more keen on recreational reading. See a 2011 LibraryCity post, How E-Books and a National Digital Library System could boost student achievement, as well as the results of a just-publicized U.K. study on the educational benefits of reading for fun.

Dr. Alice Sullivan, a coauthor of the reading-for-fun study for the Institute of Education, says that “new technologies, such as e-readers, can offer easy access to books and newspapers and it is important that government policies support and encourage children’s reading, particularly in their teenage years.” According to the IOE, “reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education. The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.”

Books and the whole-family learning concept

Merely uploading books to the Web, of course, isn’t enough to promote family literacy and recreational reading. We also need to address digital divide issues and train teachers and librarians to help Americans discover, absorb and enjoy the right e-books for them as individual children and parents, generally not the same titles. What’s more, schools and libraries are and should be about much more than books in any medium. But in an era of social media, books stand out as stimulators of sustained thought and critical thinking; we need both tweets and tomes. Sharing the stories of American exchange students in Korea, Finland and Poland—comparing educational systems—Ms. Ripley makes a powerful case for reforms in the U.S. And as I see it, the library world is one place to start. The digital library issue is in fact a K-12 and jobs issue in disguise if we really care about our young people as humans, citizens and future employees.

The goals here are fully in line with the ”whole child” concept, which plays up the need for students to be “healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.” Here we’re talking about looking beyond the classroom and encouraging schools to cooperate with other local organizations and of inspiring students to become engaged and motivated learners in their communities. Separate school libraries, as noted, should still exist. But let’s do more for the parents and strengthen existing ties between public librarians, school librarians and educators in general. Perhaps the K-12 world even needs a new term if it does not already exist (actually it does in a way, on the Web). Whole-family learning, including single-parent families.  Remembering the reading needs of mothers and fathers, directly child related or not, is a great place to begin.

A statistical argument for parental reading as a promoter of literacy among the young

Doubt the K-12 benefits of multiplying the number of free books for U.S. families and those in other countries sensible enough to adopt this approach? Then check out advice from the people who gave us the Programme for International Student Assessment, short for PISA, an initiative of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

One OECD study showed that “in Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Panama, Portugal and Qatar, children whose parents think that reading is a waste of time score more than 50 points…lower in reading than children whose parents do not think reading is a waste of time”; that’s about a year of school. Click here for a better view of the above chart (note: I’m not sure if the chart and OECD’s explanatory text are in absolute synch). The chart’s caption says it all: “Set a good example for your children by reading yourself.” Granted, a debate rages within U.S. education over the validity of standardized tests, with PISA advocates saying their baby is a good indicator of children’s critical thinking capabilities. And another battle rages over interpretation of PISA results. I won’t take sides. But no matter how you feel about standardized tests and PISA in particular, and even if you factor in socioeconomic factors, the numbers in the chart demand your attention.

Rectifying the related problems should mean, in part, the creation and expansion of family literacy campaigns, reaching even into doctor’s offices. Should the campaigns rely on e-books alone? Most emphatically not, especially for preschoolers who love old-fashioned picture books, including those with popups. But e-books can be an economical way for parents and children to go beyond the basics in time and truly learn to pursue their own specialized interests, while the students also absorb textbooks, classics and other classroom staples.  In K-12 jargon, knowledge gained from recreational reading at home can provide a scaffolding for learning in more formal settings. Both owned and loaned books have a role to play.

Just $4.20 per capita annually for public library content in the U.S.

Alas, here in the U.S., the DPLA so far has focused mostly on the creation of an academic library rather than nurturing family literacy and meeting other mainstream needs of typical American parents and students. Our public libraries are able to spend only around $4.20 per year per capita on books and other items, and essentially the DPLA is doing squat about this, preferring instead to play up public domain content and the like, while profit-driven companies like OverDrive and 3M Library Systems in effect serve as our national digital public librarians. Talk about public libraries setting themselves up to be bypassed eventually, while meantime spending a fortune in middleman costs!

Instead libraries should buy up the biggest player, OverDrive, with help from the proposed national digital library endowment, and work toward a system to purchase content directly from publishers, as much as possible, following the examples of forward-looking systems like the one in Douglas County, Colorado. Local and state autonomy could still be preserved. Our local and state libraries could still buy e-books outside the national collection while benefiting from the economies of the national digital public library system, a good way to leverage buying power. Even publishers would come out ahead with a central place to bargain with, and would share less with middlemen, and other benefits would also ensue for them.

The family-literacy alliance between Amazon and the PTA: Laudable in important ways but also problematic

Meanwhile, irony of ironies in more ways than one, the national PTA has laudably linked up with Amazon in a digitally oriented family literacy campaign—the very stuff that the DPLA should have started.

The Amazon-PTA alliance comes with huge negatives, granted, such as the Kindle Paperwhite’s lack of text to speech, AWOL most likely for marketing reasons, given the low cost of TTS technology, so helpful to blind people and others with disabilities (as well as to busy students and their parents who’d like to be able to listen to books while they exercised). I cringe when I see Amazon touting the Kindle as “The official eReader of the National PTA.” What’s more, privacy issues arise. Libraries staffed with professionals tend to be more caring protectors of readers’ privacy than do marketer-driven organizations like Amazon.

But who can blame the PTA when the current DPLA lacks the ability to meet public library needs and is accidentally diverting government and media attention from national digital library visions that could respond better to our urgent national needs? Not helping matters is the hostility of some DPLA defenders—not necessarily the top people—toward popular books that skilled teachers and librarians can turn into gateways for classics.

The DPLA’s current content and site organization: Not ready for the masses, even by startup standards

The present DPLA leaders are brilliant and mean well, and Ms. Ripley should be pleased to learn of their plans to to provide content to help students meet the Common Core standards, themselves drafted with full awareness of America’s less than stellar PISA scores. Ms. Ripley herself, as suggested by her latest Time article, is pro-Common Core and correctly believes that curricula in U.S. schools should be more robust and show more direction.

The trouble is that the DPLA site is not nearly as useful for typical K-12 teachers and students, not to mention their parents, as it could be.

We begin with the need for mainstream library content, or, rather the DPLA’s lack of it. The site isn’t even a real library right now, rather mainly a series of links to source material elsewhere, more of a specialized Google a discovery mechanism, not an optimized destination for students, parents and teachers. The home page features links to useful historical source materials and links to virtual exhibits. Great! I can see the usefulness for school history projects and the like. But missing from the main attractions is anything related to family literacy. Forget about bestsellers and other draws for the masses.

Yes, the DPLA must work with publishers if it is to be rich in commercial books. But that takes money, whether through donations or arrangements with local libraries to subscribe to the collection or pay for individual items. The DPLA just hasn’t given enough thought to such issues. The real spotlight has been on unencumbered works and copyright reform. The DPLA hopes to modernize copyright laws, a good cause. But the intellectual property wars could go on for decades, perhaps forever, and even then, without something like a national digital library endowment to help out, library patrons won’t be pleased—given their preference for the most recent books and their hatred of long waits for digitized bestsellers. Susan Flannery, a public librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has observed that “The books we purchased in [the] last 12 months went out an average of 6.5 times last year. The rest went out 2.44 times.” In fact, half the books in the main library branch in San Diego were unused in the last year, and I’d suspect that their age was no small factor.

Does this mean the DPLA should neglect older books and other items off the beaten path? Of course not. Just the opposite! The DPLA should serve up millions of older books and highly specialized works for public library patrons wanting and needing them. Furthermore, I love the idea of the DPLA rounding up specialists to create unencumbered content for public and school libraries if it can compete with the private sector. But that is no substitute for mainstream content. If we judge the site by content, the DPLA’s real constituency at the moment (beyond techies) is a mix of digital humanities people, historians and other specialists, along with genealogy buffs.

Next we go on to the issue of site usability, a “must” if the DPLA site is to foster family literacy and recreational reading.

Alas,’s interface is lacking even by startup standards. While the DPLA in some respects has been brilliant on interface issues—I really like the visual time line and other tricks for filtering searches—the home page is better at promoting various DPLA experiments than serving up basics like a good, usable subject index. Go to and try looking for one. It should be be at the top of the home page, or, better still, the actual starter links (“A,” “B,” “C” and so on) could be there. Want to encourage students to explore? Fine. The visual timeline and other visual filters offer terrific possibilities. But the current home page, organized so badly, is a long, long way from a well-packaged library site for the K-12 classroom, just as a veteran educator, Donald R. Smith, warned beforehand in a LibraryCity posting. Even with API’s on the way to help blend the site’s offerings into public library collections so the interface issues don’t quite matter as much, the DPLA has a long way to go on usability issues. And without usability, you can forget about the site as an optimal promoter of family literacy and recreational reading—even if the right content comes along in time.

Organizational remedies—so the DPLA won’t accidentally divert resources from effective Web-era family literacy efforts and other public library priorities

An obvious solution is for the DPLA to look to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, a group truly representative of the public library establishment. The DPLA could work with COSLA to establish a public library system that could still make ample use of content and talent from the DPLA and the academic world, but not neglect family literacy and other mainstream needs.

The DPLA, in fact, could reinvent itself as a focused academic system. It’s already in the organization’s DNA more than public library and K-12 needs are.

Meanwhile the national public system could pay more attention than the DPLA has to small-town needs. Large urban systems, such as Boston’s, not typical public systems with limited collections, have counted a lot more in the DPLA’s world than smaller systems have. Although small and rural libraries serve a minority of Americans, 46 million, still hardly a minor number, they are 80.5 percent of public systems.

Next let’s consider another indication of the DPLA’s insufficient interest, as an organization, in nonacademic-library needs. While the agenda for the DPLA’s forthcoming annual meeting does include a workshop on use of its offerings in the classroom, upper-level academic concerns and technological ones are by far the main show.

Also, not one current school librarian or other current K-12 educator from a public school system is among the nine members of the DPLA board. Chair John Palfrey is a smart and likeable expert in social media use by young people and is head of school for Phillips Academy, Andover, but hardly a substitute for a veteran public educator. He is a latecomer, a law professor by background, not a lifelong career educator below the university level. This isn’t personal criticism; I in fact would very much like to see John on the board of a public digital system, fostering cooperation between it and an academic counterpart. That said, I dearly hope he’ll remember his past talk of the DPLA considering a forking at some point into separate public and academic systems. The time has come.

For now, even the nonprofit organization’s name has created problems. The Digital Public Library of America has ill-served itself with an insistence on the “Public.” This is no small detail: an unwitting and long-term threat to the franchise and branching of brick-and-mortar public libraries. COSLA has even passed a resolution objecting to the P word. In response, the DPLA should immediately drop it and reach out in a friendlier fashion to the public libraries. Ideally it will offer to help them form their own national digital system, one that could truly promote family literacy and serve other mainstream needs, while the DPLA more effectively concentrates on upper-level academic ones.

Infrastructure: How the public and academic systems could cooperate

The two systems, academic and private, should share a joint digital catalog for interested patrons—along with the the reinvented OverDrive and other infrastructure as well as a common technical organization—to reduce redundancies and foster close cooperation.

At the FCC the DPLA is already going after E-Rate money to expand its less-than-fully-developed infrastructure (still more details here—the related E-Rate comment deadline for the public is October 16). I approve, just so a separate public digital library system also controls the technical side and the DPLA Local project keeps a promise to respect local systems’ independence. The DPLA’s dropping the P word from its name also would help build trust.

In the past I myself have suggested the use of telecommunications money, not just for infrastructure but even to help pay for content. Infrastructure matters, as shown by Amazon’s use of its ecosystem to dominate so much of the e-book industry and perhaps libraries in time. But let’s not allow upper-level academic concerns to prevail over family literacy ones and other grassroots priorities just because university people and friends control the toys. We need balance. While a promise of independence for participating libraries is nice, a separate but intertwined public system would be better.

If we’re to encourage family literacy and recreational reading and boost PISA scores while avoiding a Gradgrind approach, the two-system architecture and a national digital library endowment would clearly be the way to go. Please, DPLA. Don’t preempt a genuine digital public system for the U.S.—well integrated with the state and local libraries and more helpful as a promoter of family literacy and other grassroots priorities.

Note, 12:42 p.m., Sept. 27: This is a “first edition” and may change, with corrections and other refinements. Also, by way of disclosure, let me say that my wife works at ASCD, home of “whole child,” in a nonpolicy job. I myself don’t work or speak for ASCD. “Whole child” simply jibes well with how I learned to see the world while working a poverty beat on a factory-town newspaper. I saw how much good nutrition, community participation and other factors mattered beyond the classroom. That’s one reason why I’d consider PTAing and other fosterers of community spirit to be far from a waste, despite the need for many U.S. parents to spend more time reading so they can be better role models and conversationalists for their children.

Update, 3:55 p.m., Sept. 28: In keeping with my plea for the DPLA to care more about site organization, I’ve added subheads and otherwise refined the organization of this post. Other tweaks or additions are possibly ahead.

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