Should public libraries give away ebook-friendly tablets to poor people? $38 tablet hints of possibilities

nextbook[1]Young people love suitable paper books, ideally new, that they can own.

Could the same idea work for econo-tablets that public libraries gave away to low-income families—with a big, fat, e-book-related icon smack in the middle of the home screens? Yes!

Don’t just hand out gizmos, though.

Let the tablets come with old-fashioned encouragement from public and school librarians. Technology is no panacea. Kids should be able to own paper books, too, in fact, not just gadgets.

But e-book-capable tablets, especially with national digital library systems in place, could multiply the number of books matching students’ precise needs.

Paper books could serve as gateways to E, and then children and parents could digitally follow their passions to the max, whether for spaceships, basketball, or knitting. A “quiet” feature could turn off Facebook-style distractions when tablet users wanted to focus on books. Protective rubber cases could guard against drops.

Just loaners for newbies

The tablets might be just loaners at first. You’d own one for real only after you had benefited meaningfully from an online or offline book club, or had watched and absorbed educational videos, as determined by librarians or teachers. Also, you would have to show knowledge of the the basics of the machine, especially for e-booking and finding useful information on the Web, not just entertainment sites.

Yes, the tablets should be for e-books as much as possible, rather than just YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and, ideally in time, a library social network called UsBook. But parents and children could also improve themselves through the just-mentioned educational videos. The videos could reinforce teachers and librarians’ in-person tips on such topics as the best way to teach reading to a child. Librarians and public broadcasters in Colorado have already created literacy-related videos for the Web. Here’s an outstanding example. “Five Plump Peas” not only teaches words but also helps parents develop children’s motor skills and others.

Colorado uses videos to help teach parents to teach kids.Likewise, the videos could feature writers dear to young readers and help the children and their parents learn to use the tablets properly. Hate to read e-books on a black-on-white LCD screen? Find the background glow irritating? Well, the best e-book software lets you see white letters against a dark background if you want. Alas, typical e-book readers probably aren’t aware of such a “switch,” and instructional videos could make its existence known from the start.

E-book tips via videos from your friendly local public library

If nothing else, the videos could encourage parents and children to use the “quiet” feature when reading, and to change type sizes and styles to suit individual tastes. The videos also could help people cope with software crashes, inevitable with the current crop of low-cost machines. Crashes are not that big a deal if you know what to do. In addition, patrons could learn how to hook a low-cost keyboard up to their tablets for word-processing for school or work. Upscale Macs with silk-smooth responses for your fingers? Of course not. But an econo-tablet and cheapie keyboard would beat no tablet at all when an English or history paper was due, and videos could help students and other patrons master these basics.

Also, the tablets’ video capabilities could enable low-income patrons to link up online with local social service agencies and health clinics, not just local public libraries—one more way to cost-justify the giveaways. They might even display full-motion pictures of agency staffers aiding the patrons, just as Amazon’s May Day shows customer support people helping them. The video chats could be two-way when patrons wanted this. On top of everything else, low-income people could use the tablets for job applications and even remote interviews, as well as viewing job training videos.

In the past, tablet giveaways would not have been cost-effective, even with the various multiple uses of tablets and even with careful screening of recipients. But now $38 computers with seven-inch screens are on the way to the U.S. from Datawind, which anticipates a $20 price in two years. I’ve just ordered a UbiSlate 7Ci (the $38 does not include the $10 shipping), raved about by an existing user, and will write more later. I’ll keep my expectations low for the display, with a resolution of 800 by 480.

Editor’s Note: I have ordered one as well. -Nate

Meanwhile I’ve tested a dual-core Nextbook from eBook Fun with 1024×768-resolution on an eight-inch screen—picked up at Walmart for $100 (sometimes prices are higher), a fraction of the cost of a new iPad, even the earlier Mini models. The resolution is about the same as on an iPad One, which appeared with a 9.7-incher. The Nextbook’s ballyhoo on the Walmart site includes the video shown at the start of this post, with a different opening screen shot. Here are additional details on the Nextbook and the general concept of libraries giving away tablets.

Rated an average of four stars by Walmart shoppers online, the Nextbook runs Kindle software and the included Nook app well enough for most people, and to my surprise, I can even read from images of the paper editions of Google Play e-books and move around without much delay while using the slider. Moon+ Pro Reader runs well; at least no surprises so far. Both it and Google Play Books also work with text to speech—I’d installed the Acapela speech engine and the British-accented “Peter” voice. OverDrive library software at times can be sluggish; pages don’t always show up instantly on the screen. But it is still acceptable, and OverDrive’s alternative cloud service works better.

No iPad but surprisingly good for the price

Granted, the Nextbook is definitely not the equivalent of a recent iPad, even by the usual standards for machines with the Android operating system. Memory is only 8GB; RAM, just 1GB; and the processor chip is a now-mediocre 1.5GB. Battery life for e-book-reading is probably only a few hours, based on others’ impressions. The Nextbook runs Android 4.1, not the latest, 4.4.2, and the video camera’s quality is as lousy as you’d expect. But the Nextbook does come with 802.11b/g/n WiF. Netflix and YouTube at least were very playable on the Nextbook, suggesting that, yes, this can be useful for instructional videos as long as the volume on the videos is adequate. Via the included Boat browser and Google’s Chromecast (available for around $30 if you look around), I could even send an HDTV signal to a flat-screen TV. That sounds like overkill for the cash-strapped. But consider the possibility of instructional videos on large and increasingly affordable TV screens, more than a few owned  by low-income people before they became poor. I didn’t test the Nextbook’s HDMI plug—my adapter isn’t handy at the moment—but that option is presumably usable even now.

Significantly, better and faster models of econo-tablets of various makes will be on the way, and libraries should be looking ahead and experimenting on a small scale (please don’t buy thousands of Nextbooks or others, and please take it for granted that lots of lemons will be among them and arrangements with vendors should allow for this!). Walmart is selling other tablets  for as little as $50 for a four-inch model (three stars) and $58 for a seven-incher (four stars). Of course, this isn’t an ad or any kind of endorsement for Walmart in any respect.  The tablet from Walmart is a major example here because the stores are so ubiquitous in the States and are in many other countries.

Let’s also envision some libraries and schools buying up scads and scads of refurbished iPads. They shouldn’t let vendors dictate their technological strategies and should avid chasing after the latest, greatest and most expensive technology, particularly for mass purchases. Instead our public agencies should strive to offer the most value for the tax dollar, and I see the ownership strategy as one way to do this. The creation of national digital libraries, with a wide range of e-books, apps and other items useful even to people with older machines, would help. Let patrons focus more on books, other  content and basic concepts and worry just a little less about the latest hardware. Buy recent machines for in-library use and as nonownable loaners in the beginning (later the new will turn old—right for borrowing). However, for home use, concentrate more on getting patrons excited about what they can do with tablets and other devices of any age. They themselves can buy newer hardware when they’re able to afford it for themselves. An older machine is still a good, dramatic change from nothing at all.

What’s more, in the end, even newer machines, better than today’s, will sell for a pittance, so old vs. new won’t quite matter as much in the end. One more caveat. Don’t buy old for the sake of old if support costs will be too high. If schools and libraries bought older iPads on a large enough scale, perhaps they could work with Apple and other companies to keep support infrastructure intact and security measures up to date.

Yet another possibility would be to give away inexpensive E Ink readers, which I suspect will go for well under $30 or $40 new in the next few years. In fact, libraries ideally could let patrons choose between tablets and E Ink readers.

Gadgets as promoters of the book culture

Some snobs undoubtedly will be aghast at the prospect of plebes enjoying e-books, especially on less-than-the-most-modern machines made for Walmart shoppers. So be it. The idea here is to encourage young people and their role models, their parents, to read and learn and otherwise improve their lives (even if the hardware isn’t in the luxury class). This thinking almost surely is in line with the opinions of a prominent U.K. research who recommends e-books as as one way to spur children to read and thus boost their academic achievement in general.

Despite all the laments on the decline of the book culture—and, yes, I agree with the warnings despite many encouraging new developments, such as the creation of some very smart book blogs, some written by professional reviewers—it is not too late for libraries to play a prominent role in restoration of the culture to full strength. Experiments with giveaway e-book devices should be on the laundry list of corrective steps. Just make certain that the devices come with access to the right content and with an abundance technical support from librarians or, on technical matters, vendors or nonprofits. And if arrangements can be made with cable companies or other Internet providers for connectivity at home, not just the library, then so much the better. Unlike so many of the well-off literati, low-income people lack time to visit libraries constantly in person, especially if they are juggling multiple jobs or are just too plain fatigued from work, as is so often the case. In particular, the sick and disabled—two categories overlapping often with “poor”—suffer when libraries neglect patrons beyond their walls.

Perhaps groups such as Reading is Fundamental could participate with libraries in the borrow-and-own programs for the tablets. Donations from multiple companies—let’s not turn this into simply a promotion program for one vendor like Amazon, despite all the potential positives—might also be useful as a start. Furthermore, if the cable companies take an interest and provide tablets as part of their connectivity programs while addressing the programs’ current shortcomings, I am fine with the PR benefits they’ll reap. But kids and families first! Societal benefits ahead of promo, please.

reposted under a CC license from Library City

14 thoughts on “Should public libraries give away ebook-friendly tablets to poor people? $38 tablet hints of possibilities

  1. There is absolutely no reason to give away the tablets or e-readers. My library allows people to check out kindles and iPads. They come preloaded with a selection of books. There’s two fully loaded with young adult books, a romance one, a mixed selection and so on. They have about 7 of the things. Anyone with a valid library card can check out one of the items. The iPad has a few apps, lots of books, etc. There is no need to give away the devices at all. Anyone–poor or not–can check them out.

    1. I agree with Maria. It makes about as much sense in these financially difficult times for a library to give away tablets as it would for a library to buy books just to give them away. If nothing else, the library is funded to serve the community, not to serve individuals.

  2. “The tablets might be just loaners at first. You’d own one for real only after…”

    How about after you get a job and buy one?

    There’s no reason to do anything more than provide the loaners–the gateway to knowledge, the gateway to the habit of reading or whatever. If someone then wants one bad enough, they ought to be able to earn money and buy one. The incentive is right there–if you loved it enough to want your own, find a way to buy one!

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Maria, but please remember that many library patrons may want a wider selection of books then the arrangement you’ve described would allow. I myself would hate to be limited to the number of titles on a particular device. Let’s use the new technology to increase, not reduce, choices.

    Besides, books could be just one use for the library tablets. They could also be used to reduce the cost of paperwork in dealings with social service agencies. In fact, as noted, the tablets could even be used for job applications (as well as for looking for work on the first place).

    As also mentioned, people might be able to own the tablets only after they demonstrated mastery of the devices and participated meaningfully in library activities – including perhaps literacy-related ones that improved their employability.

    If nothing else, keep in mind the low cost of machines we’re talking about: $38 now and probably $20 in another few years. Hardware costs and related expenses are peanuts compared to the costs of people collecting benefits. Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to “get off the dole.” No panacea here, but certainly the hardware giveaways could help those judged to be sufficiently motivated.

    Yes, maybe some low-income patrons could buy the tablets themselves. But here, we’re talking about bundled technical support and other kinds of assistance from libraries, as well as possibly customized software to help the patrons benefit more easily from library services and those from social service agencies. Librarians or contractors would know the quirks of the machines that the libraries loaned and gave away.

    As for the E Ink readers, they wouldn’t be for multiple uses like the tablets. But patrons would still have to “earn” them. Five years from now we might even be talking about $10 devices. On top of that, just like the tablets, they could effortlessly blend into library ecosystems, making it easier to download library books with more privacy protection than the Amazon variety allows.

    1. “Thanks for the feedback, Maria, but please remember that many library patrons may want a wider selection of books then the arrangement you’ve described would allow. I myself would hate to be limited to the number of titles on a particular device. ”

      And many patrons probably don’t like the fact that the library doesn’t have all the books they might want to read. There’s a solution for that: go buy your own. I think the same principle should apply here.

  4. That’s the point–with a low cost to the machines, why not just take it out from the library and read like you check out books? And ANY patron can request the library buy a book for the device. They come pre-loaded with purchased books but just like any other book, patrons can make requests (for print, audio, or ebooks–I know because I’ve done all of these things). My library in particular buys books that are not available via overdrive (the ebook library). The books may also be on the shelves, but all libraries strive to meet a large variety of needs.

    My point is that there is simply no need for the library to do such a program. If a charity or company/individuals wanted to run something of the sort, it would be an add to what is already there, but as it stands, many libraries have already met the need!

    Patrons already have access to computers in the library as well–they can work with social agencies via those machines. The computers have been at the library for a long time and are periodically replaced. The librarians are trained to support the software, request software, etc. My library offers help with resumes several times a year (paid for by tax payers) and also has help with filing taxes at tax time along with other programs. Again, patrons can also put in a request for services or other devices they can borrow if need be.

    With the iPad a patron can request an app or other features (although if it is something such as facebook, which I don’t think is on there, the patron will have to make do with the computer services.)

    There is no need to expand the program to “give away” devices when the system in place works quite well and helps EVERYONE and anyone who takes the time to visit the library.

    I’d also add, having worked at a library, that the library has no means (or reason) to test patrons income levels. There’s no reason for them to need this information as everyone is treated exactly the same. ANYONE can borrow these devices or get help with the computer.

  5. 1. The costs of even ultra-cheap tablets can scare off people on tight budgets. What’s more, we need to make e-book-capable devices as enticing as possible–especially those linked to library programs and activities.

    2. “Preloaded” isn’t good enough. Public library patrons should also be able to download books from library catalogues (onto their own machines) and, in time, a well-stocked national collection. If you say, “What about paper books?” let me remind you that more and more libraries are cutting back on shelf space for them. As for the “request” angle, see my comment on that later on. How I hate words like “request”! “Request” so often means “Wait.”

    3. I’m not even sure if “many” public libraries, as opposed to “all,” have “met the need.” I don’t think so. Their collections are a speck of the size of Amazon’s. Why defend the status quo when so much else is possible? If public libraries don’t change, they will fade away. See “Dwarf-sized public e-libraries vs. abundance” (http://librarycity.org/?p=6691).

    4. You write, “Patrons already have access to computers in the library as well–they can work with social agencies via those machines.” How about all the public libraries where patrons must wait for machines and even then be able to use them for only limited times? A little heart, please. Let’s worry less about turnstile counts and more about helping low-income patrons get their own machines that they can use at home–not just to read books but also look for and apply for jobs. If in-person services, such as story-telling hours, are good, then people will still show up.

    5. Like many other library users, low-income people would almost surely like to be able to customize their machines themselves, at least in simple ways.

    6. “With the iPad a patron can request an app or other features…” Far better to teach low-income people how to install apps themselves, on their own machines. Request this, request that–this is the old style of bureaucratic thinking so many patrons hate. With technology and the right business model, patrons should be able to do things routine themselves, while librarians focus on training, reference requests, mentoring, community outreach, and other good stuff requiring human intervention.

    7. School lunch programs have eligibility limits. Those criteria or variants could be used.

    So many people most cherish what they own. Let’s give them a chance to enjoy tablets (or E Ink readers) for leisurely use at home rather than having to cope with those horrible waits–either for library computers or checkout ones. One of Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science is to respect patron’s time. That’s exactly what we’re talking about here, beyond a wider choice of books matching patrons’ needs (another of the Five Laws!).

    Great summary of Ranganathan’s Laws:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_laws_of_library_science

    Thanks,
    David

  6. We’ll have to agree to disagree. People who want to take home a kindle or iPad can do so right now–walk into many a library and check them out. They can peruse the selections on the devices before they check them out.

    Taking them home and downloading on their own? They’d have to pay for the content most likely, so it’s more efficient that they earn the money to buy the device in the first place–or just check it out from the library!

    I wait for books all the time. Sometimes I don’t have to. I simply don’t see that giving away kindles solves a problem that isn’t already solved.

    Anyone with a computer who wants to download ebooks can join a MULTITUDE of various libraries that allow out-of-state access to the e-libraries. They don’t even need a kindle. There are THOUSANDS of books available.

    I’ve worked a library. There are plenty of people who learn to install apps, write resumes or get help via classes that are taught at the library. Handing them a kindle or iPad isn’t going to solve any new issues or make them suddenly wealthy or more likely to obtain a job. Right now–poor and rich alike–have access to almost everything you are suggesting–computers, someone to help them, and so on. Perhaps a book or two that they want isn’t IMMEDIATELY available on a particular device, but they can interlibrary loan it or find a similar book.

    But again, we’ll agree to disagree. I use my library resources and I worked there. Every single benefit you are talking about is already available without a need to hand out kindles. I’m not at all against handing things out–if you want to do so, go ahead. I’m sure there are charities that might be interested in such a program or even companies willing to sponsor such a thing. The library is already doing much, if not all, of what you are talking about, but if you want to add to it, there’s nothing stopping you.

  7. Oh, one final thought–if your library does NOT have kindles or other resources you desire, you can certainly ask at City Council or state/county boards about acquiring funding for such. Early on, I went to my library and asked if they were considering lending Kindles. It had been talked about already and they were considering how to implement the program to get the most bang for the buck.

    For any project the library must approach city council for funds–I pay roughly 6 dollars a month as a Library tax, as does every other renter/owner in the various neighborhoods in the city and surrounding suburbs. But those taxes go into a general fund and must be allocated to the library every year (or not) even though they are taxed for the library.

    You might also approach a wonderful organization called Friends of the Library. I don’t know if their charter can work in something that is for the poor only; their charter may be community wide only. They raise money specifically for the library and library programs. Wonderful group.

  8. Maria, I’m glad you live in a town with library-friendly politicians. Not everyone does. Miami is spending a fraction of the already-pathetic national average ($4.22 per capita as of fiscal year 2010) on library content of all kinds. Would that the Friends groups could instantly turn this around, or raise enough cash locally to make up for politicians’ stinginess! See “E-books and public libraries vs. cruise ship subsidies in a Miami-Dade” (http://librarycity.org/?p=9504).

    As for owned vs. loaned tablets, please remember that we’re talking not just about book-related applications but also those related to the efficient and effective delivery of social services for low-income people. If they “earn” the tablets at the libraries and then use the newly mastered devices to cut down on paperwork costs, we taxpayers will come out ahead. What’s more, as noted, not everyone who’s poor has even $38 to spare or the ability to earn it that easily. A little sympathy for them, please. In terms of compassion, the “earned” ownership approach makes sense even without the social services component included. Think of the nearsighted elderly, including those with mobility problems, who could benefit from read-aloud Kindles or other devices that they never had to worry about returning to libraries.

    Please also understand that public libraries tend to charge out-of-towners for access to e-books, sometimes as much as $125 or more a year, assuming nonresidents are allowed to borrow in the first place. And the local e-collections are a fraction of the size of the paper ones, anyway. This is why I am so keen on a national digital library endowment and well-stocked national digital collections. Such an approach would give libraries a lot more bargaining leverage to use with publishers in purchasing, while expanding the business of the latter through increased volume.

    Although we’ll agree to disagree for now, I hope your mind will be open in the future to new means of serving low-income patrons and others in Ranganathan-friendly ways. Many many more titles addressing individuals’ precise interests. Less time needed (fewer and shorter waits for devices or content). That’s what it is all about.

    Thanks,
    David

  9. Nate writes: “And many patrons probably don’t like the fact that the library doesn’t have all the books they might want to read. There’s a solution for that: go buy your own. I think the same principle should apply here.”

    Should libraries offer every book, maybe even for free without time limits (as long as we’re talking hardware giveaways, too)? I can see challenges. But let’s not err in the other direction. $1.3B a year spent on public library content in the US is pathetic. It’s about what we were splurging in one recent year on military aid to Egypt. Furthermore, there are some interesting possibilities, such as exta-short loans periods on best-sellers, which would encourage purchases.

    In some cases, yes, horror of horrors, I do think books should be given away—for example, to low-income mothers of toddlers who could benefit from picture books. That’s more or less what the Douglas County system in Colorado is at least temporarily doing in effect, by abolishing fines on them during the year 2014. More details on the experiment and its justifications are at http://yourhub.denverpost.com/douglas-county-libraries-ends-fines-on-picture-books/.

    As for giving away devices to low-income people who’ve shown they could benefit, we need to consider the tax savings from reduced paperwork associated with users of social services agencies as well their greater ability to look and apply online for jobs. Not to mention the advantages of easy-to-call-up videos useful in early childhood education. Colorado has done some great work in this area. Even if the resolution of that $38 Datawind tablet sucks mightily, as I know it will, it might be useful for videos and large-“print” digital books suitably designed. If nothing else, let’s remember the UK study showing how dramatically recreational reading boosts academic achievement. Get the kids started early, and encourage their parents to be role models. In the future, we’ll see $38 tablets that work much better for e-books. Let’s experiment and plan ahead.

    Nate, thanks very much for running my commentary even if you disagree with it, and meanwhile I hope you’ll reconsider the dollars-and-cents arguments ss well as the compassion-related ones.

    David

  10. We are so lucky here in the US that we have libraries and the resources we do have. The funding may vary from state to state, but anyone who wishes to help fund libraries more should be active with the entities that award yearly budgets (be it city, county or state reps). Those communities that put more INTO the library by using the existing programs or attending city council meetings are going to have more dollars spent there.

    There are also many opportunities to volunteer at library programs. My library has toddler programs, puppet shows, movie nights, presentations, author signings, etc. These are often funded by grants, although sometimes by city funding and also by volunteers. Perhaps you could help your library apply for a grant to “test drive” your theory.

    Magazines, including children’s magazines, are given away every year (they are usually kept in circulation for one to two years). The content is still good and the puzzles, recipes and such do not expire.

    Friends of the Library sells incredibly cheap books every day in our library–and also have fund raisers 2 to 4 times a year. At the end of the fund raisers, they give away books by the bag/box. This includes children’s books. Many of these books cost as little as 25 cents when they are for sale. Friends is a nationwide organization. They have a great charter and are always looking for new volunteers.

    There is nothing better about using or signing up for a social service on an iPAD versus walking into the library and signing up for it via a library service. Hundreds of people visit my library and do these functions all the time. There are resources so they can print things, make copies, or ask questions. A kindle does not somehow better or change this experience and even if it did, they could actually check one of those out too.

    Interlibrary Loan programs put just about every book ever printed right at the fingertips of readers. I use the feature frequently to try out new authors. You can request almost any article EVER written and stored at almost ANY US library–it will be printed and mailed or faxed to your local branch. You can ask your librarian for help with what kinds of articles, who has them and so on. I’ve done research for books this way–I’ve gotten old newspaper articles from as far away as New York or as local as University of Texas–all without driving to either place. One took a week or longer because it had to be pulled from film and photocopied, but it was faxed to my local library–free of charge. It was EXACTLY the research I requested and the librarians went out of their way to suggest a few related pieces.

    Library funding is a local effort. Anyone who wishes their local library to add more features/funding can get involved at many levels, including fund raising. Our library does a yearly fund raising effort with raffles and spelling bees. If you want money raised for a particular project, look into it. We’ve had some very oddball things funded; some worked for the community and some didn’t.

    I honestly think what you are after is largely supplied. I have lived in even smaller cities than where I live now. I’ve experienced Austin libraries. As an author, I’ve interacted with ebook programs in Houston, as well as here. They vary somewhat, but libraries are one of the most wonderful tax-payer benefits we have in the US. They provide services to EVERYONE regardless of income. All it takes is to pick up the phone or walk in the doors.

    In rural NM there is a program that actually MAILS books, at taxpayer expense to shut-ins/seniors/those who apply. People can call their branch, request a book and it is MAILED to their door with postage paid return envelopes. If the local branch doesn’t have it, they are shipped from another NM library.

    The programs are there in so many ways. People need to be active in their community, find out what is available and make use of them!

  11. > You can request almost any article EVER written and stored at almost ANY US library–it will be printed and mailed or faxed to your local branch. You can ask your librarian for help with what kind…

    We need to get back to the “agree to disagree” mode, Maria. The idea of faxing and snailing is fine for now (and I take it for granted that not everything will be scanned for networked accessibility, at least not for a long, long time). But on this matter and others, we really need to look ahead. Sorry I can’t talk to your future self. The Maria of 2019 will be less comfortable with the way things are in 2014. While we should do what we can with today’s tools and honor the dedication of hardworking librarians and volunteers, patrons should be able to enjoy so much more. I hope that public libraries and librarians can fully embrace the digital future before it’s too late.

    Thanks,
    David

  12. I think this is a great blue-sky idea. But in today’s economy, when the library’s budget is under fire EVERY YEAR, I can’t see stretching our already thin resources this way.

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