Last April, President Barack Obama announced a non-governmental ebooks program called Open Ebooks, an app that gives in-need youth unlimited access to its titles.
Part of the White House’s ConnectED initiative that aims to jumpstart learning technology in K-12 schools, the program is for any educator, student or administrator from one of the 66,000+ Title I schools or 194 Department of Defense Education Activity schools.
The program is a partnership between New York Public Library (NYPL), Digital Public Libraries of America (DPLA), and First Book, and is made possible by contributions from Baker & Taylor and participating publishers.
Digital Book World spoke with Dan Cohen, executive director of DPLA, to learn more about how the program was conceived and has been received by educators and students so far.
How did the idea for Open Ebooks come about?
One thing we started thinking about a year and a half ago is that it would be great to provide content as part of the ConnectEd initiative. DPLA has connections with libraries in the United States and is a community that cares about bringing materials to students and the general public. At the time, NYPL was in the process of creating an ebooks app, so it was perfect timing. Another key partner is Baker & Taylor, who is actually hosting the ebooks. Everything has worked well in terms of them holding the ebook files. It couldn’t have gone better.
DPLA’s role is to act as nationwide evangelist for the program. We have a group of librarians who helped select and organize the books within the app. Now, we are working to make sure the program is nationally used through our network and our partners’ networks. It’s an exciting time. It’s off to a great start.
When researching for the development of this app, what did you discover were the main reasons some students may not have had access to books?
There were elements we thought were issues that ended up not being issues. We researched the availability of devices in low-income households and we discovered that that problem is thankfully starting to disappear. It’s not gone totally, though.
But we found in recent surveys that 85 percent of households within the poverty line own a device that’s able to host the app. This is a population where ebooks have started to take off as a supplement rather than replacements for physical books.
What was nice when President Obama announced this program is that it was paired with another program to get every child a library card. We just want kids to have maximum access to books. We want to make sure they have access to physical books but also where, on a whim, they can open up a tablet and start reading a book right there from their home. We thought that would be win-win situation.
In your opinion, what’s advantageous about Open Ebooks’ digital format?
One of the great things about the digital format is the ability to access a book at one’s whim. There is something really special about being able to open a device and read something. And then, of course, digital has other affordances: there is the ability to change font size. Different people have different reading styles. Some people respond better to few words on a page. In the digital format, you can make those permutations.
The portability aspect is really special in that you can have 3,000 books on your phone in your pocket. There are also many good things about print. I think there are good reasons to read books in both print and digital. For us, we just want to maximize access.
How has Open Ebooks been received by faculty and students so far?
We’ve gotten so many great emails and social media responses thanking President Obama for supporting us and publishers and partners for bringing together resources to make this happen. There are entire schools that have gained access to books. We’ve had public libraries where librarians are encouraging access through this app.
Now that Open Ebooks has launched, do DPLA and its partners have future plans for it?
Along with the wonderful feedback from students and teachers, we’ve also got incredible feedback from publishers. More publishers want to be involved and have their books in the app as well.
What are you most proud of in developing this project?
At the end of the day, I’m most proud of enabling the joy of reading. I have children myself in this age range, and I think one of the best gifts an adult can inspire is a love of reading. It can be in all kinds of words—whether fiction, nonfiction, long-form or picture books. When you open up that gift to children, you give them the ability to access all kinds of entertainment.
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