February 29, 2016
New program will provide free ebooks to many low-income children
by Kait Howard
Yesterday, MobyLives wrote about Project Literacy’s petition calling on the United Nations to make increasing literacy around the globe a major goal. Coincidentally, this isn’t the only literary initiative to launch this month.
As The New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler reports, a new U.S. program designed to provide thousands of free ebooks to low-income children, launched on February 24th, has already gained significant traction.
Aided, perhaps, by the support of a video message by Michelle Obama, the non-governmental program Open eBooks “signed up roughly 50,000 users on its first day, according a report by the project’s partner organizations.”
“Open eBooks allows adults working in libraries, schools, shelters, hospitals and other settings to request access for the children they serve. The books, provided by more than 10 publishers, are selected by a ‘curation corps’ and can be downloaded through an app on the children’s own mobile devices.”
So far, questions haven’t been raised about the initiative’s ability to deliver digital content to low-income children who may not have a way of accessing the content. The New York Times’s Cecilia Kang recently ran an in-depth report on how students in low-income families, lacking internet access, struggle do homework assignments that increasingly must be completed online.
A description of the Open eBooks initiative on the White House’s website attempted to allay concerns, citing a national survey showing that “85% of families with children (6–13 years old) living below the poverty line have access to mobile devices” —although it’s not clear how many of these devices are available to children, rather than just their parents. Three kids profiled in the Kang’s article described using their family’s smart phones to do their homework, standing outside their school after hours to access wifi because they didn’t have internet at home and their parents couldn’t afford a large enough data plan. According to Kang, their family is one of an estimated five million in the U.S. who don’t have internet access.
Nevertheless, according to Schuessler, the initiative—a partnership between Digital Public Library of America, the New York Public Library, and the non-profit group First Book, with content support provided by Baker & Taylor—will give many children access to an inventory of books valued at $250 million. Especially voracious readers, who may quickly run through the books available in their classrooms or at home, will not have to limit their reading for lack of resources. “Qualified kids will be able to read any of these ebooks on a whim,” wrote Dan Cohen, executive director of the Digital Public Library, in a post about the project.
For many kids just discovering a love of reading, this instant access could make all the difference in sustaining their enthusiasm.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.