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International Children's Digital Library Helps Young Readers Worldwide

By Gabe Goldberg, HCIL Media Fellow

HCIL team works on the ICDL project

Libraries have come a long way since Andrew Carnegie's late-1800s vision of developing citizenship through increased literacy. Multiple generations have benefited from abundant books in almost 3,000 free libraries, throughout the United States and elsewhere, started, with his donation.

Carnegie knew that literature exposes young hearts and minds to new and foreign ideas. Engaging stories help children grow intellectually, develop their identities, and seek to explore their environment. Yet the quality of education varies greatly around the world, and many children don't have well-endowed libraries -- or any libraries at all -- nearby.

Times change. Imagine a growing virtual library of international children's literature available to kids around the world -- created, accessed, shared, and discussed using technology created just for this purpose. The ICDL, International Children's Digital Library, is as accessible as a URL, It provides a supportive and safe environment for children aged 7-11 from different cultures to communicate with each other, even across language barriers.

Books are suggested for inclusion by an international group of librarians and are contributed by authors, illustrators, publishers, national libraries world-wide. Then (either out-of-copyright or with permission) they're scanned and tagged. Metadata -- information about books -- is added to provide author, publication date, subject, style, and more.

This beyond-just-the-facts catalog allows children to search in their own terms: whether books are true or pretend, their color and size, feelings they create, etc. A key part of the catalog is kids' book ratings and reviews, even including illustrations.

Children can create customized personal bookshelves with links to favorite volumes; teachers can designate collections of books for students to browse and read. Kids create bookmarks and notations and customize their accounts with -- for example -- fun themes based on monsters that guard their bookshelves.

Only physical books are collected -- ICDL doesn't replace, but rather improves access to the world's kid lit. The library seeks children's literature with high artistic, literary, or historic value; books are selected by country/culture experts, and presented whole, in their original languages. Titles typically rich in graphics allow multi-lingual/cultural/generational sharing and communication as well as painless and enjoyable language lessons.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and Microsoft, the ICDL is a research project of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. It's quite an interdisciplinary project, blending staff and students from Computer Science, Information Studies, Education, and Psychology departments with the real experts in children's needs and preferences: a rotating panel of youngsters.

The library provides children with material that explains our global society. It's also a platform for ongoing research in areas such as how children's attitudes differ or agree from country to country concerning books, libraries, technology and culture; how children would change books and libraries; the differences and similarities between children's use of print and digital books; and the research value of worldwide historical children's literature.

As it moves towards the goal of providing ten thousand books spread across a hundred languages, it's already helping children as readers and citizens, with greater understanding of others leading to improved tolerance and acceptance. And knowledge of children's reading habits and preferences will help school and library collection development.

In addition to collaborating academics and children, ICDL is helped by nearly 200 volunteer ambassadors in dozens of countries. These people help test software, conduct use studies, facilitate collection development efforts, submit lesson plans using ICDL resources, ensure that language usage makes sense to native speakers, and much more. It would make Andrew Carnegie proud.

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