August 1, 2014

Travis’s Excellent (Ereader) Adventure

From

Illustration by Travis Jonker; Photography by Craig van der Lende.

Last year, we rolled out an ereader lending program in my fifth and sixth grade school library, and I plan to share here the ups, downs, and what-to-look-out-fors we encountered along the way. We’ll talk planning and implementation of the program—but first, a bit of background. Let’s hop into the librarian time machine (fashioned from an old card catalog I found on Etsy) and go back to August 2011….

Background

Each year, my school district offers an Innovation Grant to employees. Teachers interested in implementing a project, using unique or innovative components and with the goal of benefiting students, are encouraged to apply. For my secondary school colleague Amy Huyck and me, an ereader lending program was a no-brainer. Our reasons were these:

  • It would allow all students access to this fast-growing form of technology, especially those who would not otherwise have access due to socioeconomic status.
  • It would generate excitement for reading. A bit of hype never hurt, right?
  • Ereader features (adjustable fonts, highlighting, note-taking) would benefit all students, and particularly those with visual impairments.
  • Other schools were seeing positive reactions to their ereader programs.

We outlined these benefits in our program goals, put together a time line for reaching them, and sent the whole thing to the powers that be.

If this were a cooking show, this is where I’d put the grant application in the oven and pull out another application with the word APPROVED written on top. That was an exciting email to receive. Now might be a good time to mention that if you’re an educator looking for grant opportunities, FableVision has a nice list you can subscribe to for free.

The grant allowed us to purchase 10 ereaders, warranties, cases, and a selection of ebooks to spread among our fifth and sixth grade and middle and high school. I would have three devices under my watch. While this isn’t a huge number, it gave us the chance to get a handle on things before expanding the program.

Planning

Let’s move on to a headline: “Ownership of E-Readers, Tablets Almost Doubles in One Month.” Last holiday season, in the span of 30 days, we went from 10 percent of the population to 19 percent of the population owning some form of ereader. The digital reading explosion is staggering to consider. If the whole “ebooks eliminate cover shame” thing is true, the time to get into the trashy romance novel biz is now.

OK, so you’re feeling like you’re ready. You want to start offering ereaders to students. First, some things to think about.

Research

  • Georgia school librarian Buffy Hamilton has been sharing her valuable ereader program insights on her blog: Here and here.
  • ALA Techsource posted the slides from an excellent webinar on ebooks in K–12 libraries (hosted by the aforementioned Buffy Hamilton)
  • School Library Journal published Audrey Watters’s article titled “The Truth About Tablets.” For my money, it’s a must-read on the topic.
  • No Shelf Required 2 (edited by Sue Polanka, ALA Editions) is also an excellent way to learn more.

Grade levels

Before beginning an ereader program, you should ask yourself which grade levels the program is for. I work in a district where grades are grouped by building, so I have a K–2, a 3–4, and a 5–6 school. Considering the limitations of the device, the cost, and the intended use, it seemed like beginning with fifth and sixth graders was the place to start, along with middle school and high school students.

Cost

When looking at a program dependent on electronic devices, dollars and cents immediately come into play. If no grant opportunities are working out and your library budget is tight, write up a proposal and submit it to your administration. Those looking to stay current may be willing to fund your program.

The beauty is, the prices of standard ereaders are coming down so quickly, cost is fast becoming a nonissue. Folks are already wondering if the Kindle will be free in the near future. For a while, Nook was free with the purchase of a digital subscription to the New York Times.

Basically, the day is fast approaching when you’ll be getting ereaders as junk mail. “Not another ereader!” you’ll moan. A national Do Not Send Me an Ereader list will be created to fight off being bombarded by ereader-device spam in your mailbox.

But however you ante up the funds, don’t forget to factor in the following costs when budgeting:

  • A protection plan of some sort: every company offers an extended warranty, and for library circulation, it’s essential. Basically, these are like insurance policies for your ereader. Accidental breakage? No problem to exchange the device for a new one.
  • A decent case: initially, we were going to circulate the ereaders in neoprene sleeves, but at the last minute we wised up and purchased more rigid cases. Considering that these things may find their way into backpacks, having something sturdy will provide peace of mind.
  • A USB adaptor: if your device doesn’t come with something that allows you to charge from a standard outlet, I would recommend picking one up.
  • Ebooks: because you sort of need them and forgetting to include them in the budget would be very embarrassing.

Permission

We require a permission slip signed by a parent or guardian before checkout (email me for a copy of the one we use). From a school district standpoint, this is especially important if the device has Internet access (folks tend to get very permission-y when the Internet is involved). We’re circulating Nook Simple Touch ereaders, which don’t have an advertised web browser, diminishing this issue. Work with your school district technology director to see what’s acceptable. Permission slips can turn into legal jargon in a hurry, though, so push for clarity and brevity.

Accessibility

Before they started circulating, we made sure to turn on password protection for downloads. Each device is tied to a credit card, which makes it easy for an individual to order books but could be a problem when offering them for general checkout.

Once the ereader is checked out, where are students allowed to take them? Some options:

  • Home: I’m of the mind that kids should be able to check our ereaders out and bring them home. That’s what we did in my district—even for kids who have had lost-book issues. It can be a scary thing to consider (fear is directly correlated to cost of the item in question), but who is the ereader program for? The importance of providing student access should outweigh concerns about lost ordamaged devices. And with the cost dropping (see above) that worry will soon be off the table.
  • At school only: It’s also an option to circulate the ereaders within the school. I’ve spoken with a fellow school librarian who had to go this route due to Internet filtering rules in her district. Because of this, it wouldn’t hurt to look into how your district feels about ereaders with Internet access before making final decisions, i.e., spending tons of cash and then getting a “no can do” from your administration.

Teachers

Aside from individual students checking them out, another possibility is to load up some books for use in classrooms for literature circles. It’s likely if you did this you’d want to get enough to outfit a whole classroom. If one or two groups have ereaders and other groups do not, there could be mutiny.

But, which device to choose? (See “The Devices,” below)

Devices Illustrations

Ebooks

So, with planning complete and the device chosen, now comes possibly the most important piece—what books to offer and how to get them on the devices?

For me, the trickiest part of the program is in the management of ebooks. If there’s one thing that would open up more libraries to lend ereaders, it would be a way to manage any number of devices from one account. Frustratingly, that’s not the current reality.

To manage devices individually, you need a separate account—with a unique email address—for each one. Should librarians really have to create shell email accounts just to offer Kindles or Nooks to eager students? The alternative—which we went with due to lack of a better solution—is one account for up to six ereaders, sharing books across all devices. Barnes & Noble does offer a “managed digital locker” program, but you need to purchase 25 or more devices to qualify and then have to work through B&N to manage the ebooks. Not ideal.

If appointed Ereader Czar, my first actions would be to eliminate Digital Rights Management (DRM) that blocks ebooks from working across platforms, and then demand that ereader makers offer the ability for users to manage all their devices from a single account.

Adding to the complexity are traditional book jobbers and publishers offering their own ereader platforms. Follett has Follett Shelf, Baker & Taylor has Axis360, and Mackin has VIA. All of these offer on-demand access to ebooks for iPads and other tablet computer-style ereaders. OverDrive, the popular public library ebook provider, also offers a school library solution—for a princely sum. My school district will be kicking off a 1:1 initiative this year at the middle school and high school level using iPads, and we are experimenting with Follett Shelf. It will be interesting to see how this affects the circulation of our traditional ereaders.

Looking at traditional ereaders like those we have, you can go a couple of ways with how you offer ebooks.

  • You can have a bunch of devices with copies of the same batch of books, which would be easier in terms of management. This is what we went with. I added a batch of new high interest titles to each device.
  • You can offer different books on each device—a bit trickier, but it allows for a wider variety of options for readers.
  • By request. We haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve heard some schools toying with the idea of allowing students to select a book they would like to read before checking out the device. Talk about customer service.

Something else to consider is giving students the ability to check out books from the public library on the device. This is an excellent way to strengthen the partnership between school and public libraries while also giving students more freedom in what they choose to read.

Whichever option you choose, one thing we realized early on is that we wouldn’t be able to track individual ebook checkouts on our Nooks— there just isn’t a good way to do it. Our approach is to catalog the device and not worry about which titles are being read. The ebook platforms I mentioned earlier (Follett Shelf, et al) do allow for ebook checkout data—another aspect to consider when creating your program.

In the wild

This is the best part—sending the ereaders out into the world. As permission slips came back and the wait list grew, it became clear that we needed more devices, so I added two, bringing our total to a larger yet still modest five ereaders. Be sure you don’t forget the hype. We set up a display in the library announcing the new program. I got on our school’s daily video newscast for our school and let students know how to sign up. We offered a stack of permission slips front and center, alongside a page showing the covers of all the books they would have access to.

It had to happen. About three weeks in, we had our first damage—the power port at the bottom of one ereader was broken, making it impossible to charge. With the protection plan, this was not a problem. I brought it to the nearest Barnes & Noble, explained what had happened, and left the store 10 minutes later with a replacement. It’s a beautiful thing when you expect a hassle and you are met with nothing but smooth sailing.

One trend we noticed was that the ereaders were in much higher demand in my fifth- and sixth-grade school than they were at the middle school or high school. We noticed that older students often already had ereaders.

After the first round of checkouts, we received some questions about how the things worked. We decided to create a simple, one-page how-to for students checking out ereaders. This helped to address student FAQs immediately.

We made the executive decision to not circulate power plugs. With a one-week checkout, battery life has held up—and in cases where it didn’t, students could bring the device to the library for a couple of hours during the school day to top it off. Just be sure to do a full recharge before sending the device out again.

Looking back on the year, I know a couple of things. I know the goals we outlined in our grant application—providing access, generating excitement, and offering a more customizable reading experience—were all met. I know we encountered more difficult decisions than anticipated. I also know we’ll be looking to expand to lower grade levels this coming school year. A modest beginning is still a beginning. I’m glad we started.


 

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Travis Jonker About Travis Jonker

Elementary school librarian Travis Jonker (scopenotes@gmail.com) works for Wayland (MI) Union Schools and blogs at “100 Scope Notes.”

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. I come from a unique prospective. I am both a youth librarian and a Barnes and Noble employee. I can see the struggle that librarians (and schools) face when it comes digital content and technology. Both hardware and policies are in a constant state of flux. However, I don’t think that means that libraries shouldn’t jump on board. I think there needs to be money set aside for replacement plans as e-readers and tablet evolve, and they can be replaced every few years or so.

    I will make one correction to your article though- the Barnes and Noble digital content locker only requires 10 units to be purchased. They’ve greatly improved upon that program. It also doesn’t stop the users (in this case librarians and their patrons) from downloading their own content (Overdrive, 3M) to the devices. The managed digital locker is only for B&N content. And if libraries are circulating the Nook devices, the digital content is much cheaper than if purchased from Overdrive (at least in most cases).

  2. Heather Connell says:

    Hi, Great article on ereaders, we are currently doing one similar. I was wondering if I could get a copy of your ebook form for parents? Thanks

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