Cultural and personal impact

XV.6 November + December 2008
Page: 50
Digital Citation

FEATUREExperiencing the International Children’s Digital Library

Benjamin Bederson

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We all know what a book is. It's made of paper; you hold it in your hands; it contains words and sometimes pictures. We know that books have certain affordances such as ruggedness, ease of reading, portability, and are relatively expensive (at least compared with electronic forms). But perhaps most important, books afford deep attention. They engage and focus. They are relatively unchanging, and so they become cultural references. And these same characteristics also encourage writers and publishers to invest a lot in their creation—knowing that they may well not have a second chance.

A children's book is all that, and more. This is true not only because of the pictures and larger format printing, but also because of the impact these books can have. There is potential to be unlocked in every child—if only he or she can be exposed to rich and diverse experiences and ideas. We want our children to grow into everything we envision the world should be. From board books to the rich pop-out books of Robert Sabuda, from the obscure titles to the Harry Potters, children's literature has a rich history of many forms that support this vision.

And then there is the Web—also somewhat magical in our idealized cultural vision of free and broadly accessible information of all kinds. The Web is easy to change and inexpensive; it is these characteristics that encourage different behaviors and attitudes about content on the Web in the minds of readers.

back to top  What Is It About Books?

We can find so much, so fast on the Internet. But when we find that content, do we focus on it and engage deeply? Or do our minds wander as we interpret and envision our own lives in the stories we read? Do children do the same?

It was from these questions and many more that a growing realization emerged: Despite the breadth of the Web, and the diversity of our world, something was getting lost when looking at online content. Do children concentrate on the Web with the same degree of attention as books? My colleagues and I often saw children engaging with computers and the Web in ways that were so much less meaningful than the books that were being replaced.

In 2002 this led me, with my colleagues Allison Druin and Ann Weeks (and a cast of many more), to build the International Children's Digital Library (ICDL)—a website of exemplary, freely available children's books from around the world with a child-friendly interface for finding and reading books online [1]. There are currently more than 2,500 full books online from 59 countries in 48 languages.

The access afforded by the site presents a risk. Do we gain breadth and access? Or do we lose focus and depth because of the form? The answer, of course, is both.

By deploying a live and widely used website, we have studied its use both informally and through a variety of academic studies. We have partnered with institutions such as the World Bank, the Government of Mongolia, and One Laptop Per Child and have learned what the library can mean through deployments in developing countries.

back to top  Children and Adults

Children are not just short adults [2]. Their interests and abilities differ from ours, and they change over time. Children are often more physical and concrete than adults. This becomes clear when they search. Younger children, especially, are likely to want to search by physical characteristics of the book such as the length, size, and even color of the cover. They also are more likely to focus on concrete characteristics of the book while older children start thinking about more abstract issues [3].

We worked closely with children throughout the design, implementation, and deployment of the ICDL through a process called Cooperative Inquiry [4]. We have children come to our lab regularly and work with us as design partners. For the ICDL, we went further and even had the "kidsteam" children visit libraries to observe and interview other children as they used the library. Our intergenerational efforts responded to these concerns, resulting in the current interface. Children can search not only for traditional genres, but also other search parameters such as the color of the book cover, how the books make you feel, and more.

An ICDL weblog analysis confirms the academic research with practice. For example, our youngest users (indicated by self-reporting during an optional registration process) search more for the categories "rainbow," "real animal characters," and "make believe books," Twenty-year-old users, on the other hand, search more for the categories "short books," "award winning," and "true books."

We also know from our early observations that children often select books (and start their reading process) by flipping through the pages to get a sense of how long it is, and what kind of pictures are in it. We observed them reading in every imaginable physical location—in chairs, on desks, on floors, under desks—occasionally, upside down. When talking with these kids, we discovered that sometimes they just want different physical experiences.

Therefore we built different ways to read the book. We always start by showing an overview of the book by initially displaying thumbnails of every page (that are magnified on mouse-over). The book can then be read in order or starting at any page by clicking on it. My daughter's favorite ICDL book is Axle the Freeway Cat, and strange as this may seem to a logically oriented adult, she always reads it by first looking at the picture of Axle eating breakfast in the car. Then, laughing, she begins again at the beginning of the book. We also implemented a spiral book reader that presents the pages in a more playful manner: They flow across the screen in a spiral (but the form still supports reading by presenting the current page very large in the center). An early study of these book readers [5], confirmed by recent weblog analysis, shows that kids like all the book-reader styles—and the match isn't usually by kid, but rather by mood. That is, sometimes a child prefers the simple page-at-a-time book reader, and sometimes he or she prefers the animated spiral reader.

Another interesting trend we see is that there are a fair number of questions from adults about very specific features of the ICDL website—about issues such as exactly how the book-cover-color search works. But we get very few questions from children. Of course they are likely to have less access and ability to contact us, but still, the lack of questions from children is striking. This is backed up by our lab observations of first-time users of the library. Children are just much more accepting than adults. They are more likely to use the interface without question, and interestingly, they are also more likely to start reading whatever book they stumble upon.

back to top  Challenges and Opportunities of Thinking Worldwide

Where the ICDL really gets interesting is when we start to look at how it affects the children who use it, and what the challenges and implications are of deploying a technology like this for such a basic activity as reading. These questions get even more complex when we think about its use in the developing world.

Let's start by looking at how children use the ICDL. We ran a longitudinal four-year study observing how 12 children used the ICDL in Germany, Honduras, New Zealand, and the U.S. [6]. The children read at least one ICDL book per month, created drawings and book reviews about those books, and participated in an interview with an ICDL researcher (along with their teachers and librarians) once per year. To reduce technical challenges, we gave the children Tablet PCs with a version of the ICDL running locally. This enabled them to have consistent and fast access to their library, even when their Internet connections were unreliable.

We observed a number of interesting trends in this study relating to how children read and feel about reading. To begin with, the diversity of available books was greatly appreciated. Children, their parents, and librarians all reported that the easy access to a broad set of books from many cultures intrigued them, and they frequently found themselves reading books that they happened upon—even though they very likely would never have searched them out. This general trend resulted in many children reading an increasing number of books over time. And some children used the easy availability of books to reread the same books over and over again. Interestingly, the single strongest finding in the data was that the children showed increased interest in exploring different cultures. Finally, most of the children reported that while they very much liked the ease of access to the digital books, they still preferred physical books for reading. In explaining this, they referred to ease of navigation, ease of carrying (since the Tablet PCs were significantly heavier than most books), and the risk of carrying expensive computers around in sometimes dangerous urban neighborhoods.

With this increased understanding and generally positive feedback, we were ready to respond when we received a request from the World Bank and the Government of Mongolia to create a Mongolian version of the ICDL, aiming to support rural use. This somewhat unusual opportunity came about because the Mongolian children's publishing industry collapsed when the country became independent about 20 years ago. With almost no new children's books being published, the culture of children's reading for pleasure largely disappeared.

The World Bank chose to fund a general literacy program, which included commissioning 200 new picture books for grades 2–6 that were to be distributed throughout the country, along with teacher training and other activities. They wanted a digital library of those books as well. It may at first seem a questionable choice to spend money on this kind of technology in a developing country where much of the countryside has unreliable electricity and little or no Internet connectivity. However, upon closer examination we saw that only a small part of the overall literacy project was spent on technology. Further, they know that computers are coming throughout the country. They wanted to make sure that there are good activities for children on those computers, and to encourage an increase in technological capacity in the countryside. They also saw the economic impact that technology has had on many of their Asian neighbors (such as Taiwan and Singapore), and want to push technology forward in a variety of domains.

And so it was with this context that the ICDL received rights to all 200 Mongolian books, translated the website into Mongolian, and even set up an ICDL mirror server in Ulaan Baatar (at I literally carried a Dell PowerEdge server with me on my first trip there, and it remains happily installed at a local hosting facility—offering much faster access to the 50 percent of the country that lives in the capital region. My second trip focused on the first pilot of the ICDL in the countryside. Travelling with UMD graduate student Sheri Massey, we set up local ICDL servers in three very rural pilot schools that recently had computer labs set up. The Web server ran on the teacher's computer, and a local network gave all the classroom computers access to the library through their standard Web browsers. Ironically, these local servers and fast local connections gave these children faster access to the ICDL than anyone in this country who accesses it over a regular Internet connection.

We ran into a wide range of deployment challenges that you might expect from a developing country novice like myself installing a complex technology in such a place. Everything tripped us up. We were plagued with viruses, power problems, network configuration issues, missing drivers, scratched CDs, and even a lost private key (needed for encrypting some of the books) that I managed against all odds to leave in Maryland—requiring an extra eight hours of rural driving to get to an Internet connection. But those were just "stupid engineering hurdles" we got past. And then we were able to focus on the amazing situation of working with teachers and children in rural Mongolia, many of whom had very little exposure to computers and none with digital books.

In the months before this rural trip, my biggest fear was that the people I would be trying to help would be uninterested in this technology. What, I wondered, would these people who spend most of their time in exceedingly remote farming situations see in modern computer technology? Would they see an American imperialist, unaware of their needs and actual lives? Would they see technology as something foreign and beyond understanding? Or would they be interested in engaging in this alternative world? Much to my delight, it was clearly the latter. The teachers in the training workshops in every school that we visited were deeply engaged. They skipped lunch breaks and kept us on well past the planned ending times. The schools had welcoming ceremonies with song and dance. And the children were thrilled to have a seemingly unending supply of books and technology, all rolled up together. They clearly saw the broad potential that computers could have in their lives and wanted to explore what it had to offer them. And so when I returned, I redoubled my efforts to improve the technology to match the real-world challenges of deployment scenarios I saw. We have since improved readability on small screens, added support for transcription and translation, eliminated the need for browser plug-ins, and now we're even starting to explore how we can support reading books on mobile phones.

And so, this brings us back to where we started. What does it mean for children to read books on computers?

back to top  Lessons and Conclusion

Perhaps my favorite anecdote that explains what I've come to think about children reading books online is from our four-country study. At the beginning of the study, we asked children to draw a picture of themselves reading a book in the ICDL. One little girl drew a picture of a tablet computer in her lap. A year later, we asked them to do the same thing. This same girl drew a picture of a paper book in her lap. She wasn't playing with a computer anymore. She was reading books.

And this goes to the essence of the potential of technology for children. After the novelty is gone, people go about their business doing what is important to them. And to children, reading stories and understanding the people and world around them is always going to be important. The more access to books and stories we give to children, the more they will engage in them.

But are computers distracting, and is there the potential for children wasting their time, or worse? These fears are founded, and quite possible. But technology is becoming a central part of children's lives almost everywhere. We can ignore it and hope that children find good things to do with computers on their own, or we can dive into the reality of our children's lives and build the best technology we can to give them exciting and valuable things to do when they are using that technology.

It is time to deploy the ICDL and other educational technologies widely throughout the rural developing world. Many places have computers but no content, and they need resources such as the ICDL. For those without computers, it may not yet be cost effective to buy them just for the books. But computers are being deployed for other reasons, and initiatives like the One Laptop Per Child project are making them much less expensive. Now is the time to start experimenting and learning about what is required to make projects like the ICDL function effectively. The ICDL needs your help. Visit the website to see what you can do to volunteer.

back to top  References

1. Hutchinson et al. "Supporting Elementary-Age Children's Searching and Browsing: Design and Evaluation Using the International Children's Digital Library." JASIST 58, no. 11 (2007).

2. Montemayor et al., "PETS: A Personal Electronic Teller of Stories," University of Maryland, 1999.

3. Druin, Allison. "What children can teach us: Developing digital libraries for children." Library Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2005): 20–41.

4. Druin, Allison. "Cooperative Inquiry: Developing New Technologies for Children With Children." Working paper, CHI 1999, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1999.

5. Druin, Allison et al. "The International Children's Digital Library: Description and Analysis of First Use." First Monday 8, no. 5 (2003) <>

6. Druin, Allison et al. "Children's Interests and Concerns When Using the International Children's Digital Library: A Four-Country Case Study." Working paper, JCDL 2007, Vancouver, Canada, 2007.

back to top  Author

Dr. Ben Bederson is an associate professor of computer science and the previous director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. His work is on mobile device interfaces, information visualization, interaction strategies, digital libraries, and accessibility issues such as voting-system usability. He is also cofounder and chief scientist of Zumobi, a startup offering a mobile widget platform based on Ben's research. For more information, visit him at

back to top  Footnotes

To experience the ICDL visit:

For extended essays about the ICDL trips to Mongolia visit:


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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/1100  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2008 ACM, Inc.

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