A Library For Young Browsers
By Leslie Walker
Thursday, November 21, 2002; Page E01
Venture capital may have slowed to a trickle, but you can still find money for Internet projects that aim to change the world.
Ask Allison Druin, leader of a University of Maryland team that scooped up $4.4 million in grants to create the world's largest digital library for children. The free public library opened its electronic doors on the Internet this week, offering a pilot version with nearly 200 digitized books in 18 languages for children ages 3 to 13.
Plans call for the International Children's Digital Library to offer 10,000 books -- 100 titles from 100 cultures -- by 2007, allowing children to read them on desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices.
The eclectic library lets children hunt for books based on what color their covers are, how they make them feel, what kind of characters they depict and other ways that adults might find rather strange. One of its goals is to test novel ways of navigating the pages with graphical rather than text cues.
"We are developing new technologies that reflect real thinking about children's needs and cognitive abilities," said Druin, an education professor who is creating the library with her husband, University of Maryland computer science professor Benjamin Bederson. "If you look at existing technology for children searching on the Web, so much of it depends on reading and typing. From 4 to 8 years old, kids know exactly what they want but they have poor typing skills and have a heck of a time finding it."
An equally key goal is to bring together publishers, librarians and software developers to explore thorny copyright issues that arise from making books publicly accessible on a Web site. Nobody knows how the traditional public library concept of book-lending will play out in the digital arena, where material is more easily copied. Though publishers remain leery of making books available for free online, big ones like Random House and Harper Collins have donated titles for display in the experimental children's library.
Some copyrighted works, such as "Skeleton Man" by Joseph Bruchac, appear in encrypted form in the library, while others, such "Aiana and the Pia Ghost" by author Lino Nelisa, appear without copy protection. More than two-thirds of the material in the library is in the public domain, with expired copyrights.
"We are working with publishers so at the end of this there will be a business model," said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive in San Francisco, co-creator and Web host for the children's library. "Traditional libraries are in a good position to experiment with these copyright issues because they spend so much of their budgets on publisher's products."
University of Maryland husband-wife team Benjamin Bederson and Allison Druin display their new International Children's Digital Library on a Tablet PC. ( By Leslie Walker/The Post)
The digital library is being designed by the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab, whose director is Bederson. Funders include the National Science Foundation, the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Markle Foundation. The Library of Congress has contributed 50 books so far. Other titles have been donated from the national libraries of Singapore, Croatia, New Zealand and other countries. Besides "Alice in Wonderland," books digitized include bilingual titles such as "From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems."
Today, more than two dozen librarians, authors and publishers from Egypt, Japan, Russia, Finland, Germany and elsewhere are gathering at the Library of Congress to discuss the five-year expansion plan for the digital children's collection.
The project is unusual on many levels, not the least of which is who helped design the library -- kids under the age of 14, working with professors to figure out what kind of new visual aids might help youngsters explore books more easily. Students from Yorktown Elementary Schoolin Bowie paid weekly visits to the College Park lab since the late 1990s to help forge experimental search tools.
"One of our most interesting findings was how kids wanted to look for books based on how they made them feel," Druin recalled. "They said, 'I want to find all the happy books.' Or 'I want to find books that are scary.' No library in the world has shelf labels that say 'happy books,' so the kids are rating the books on how they make them feel."
The physical books have been scanned in their entirety. Pages and covers appear as digital photographs at the library's Web site( www.icdlbooks.org ). Viewing them requires the latest free version of Java software and ideally a high-speed Internet connection, because the pages are graphically rich. Next summer a lighter version for dial-up Internet users is planned.
In addition to a kid-friendly book classification system, Druin and Bederson created kid-friendly viewing software that presents three reading options, including two graphical overviews that let children skip around visually. First is a traditional single-page view, which resembles a paper book. Second is a comic-strip view showing pages as thumbnail images in a strip. Third is a more experimental spiral view, showing thumbnails of pages twisted into two spirals. Both the comic-strip and spiral views let kids click on any small image to zoom in and read an enlarged version of the page.
The library faces skepticism about the amount of reading children will be willing to do on computer screens, but Druin thinks digital displays are improving constantly and believes they represent the future of reading. "People had these same worries when ink jet printers came out with their low-resolution version of printing," she said. "Nowadays nobody thinks twice about reading off of inkjet printing."
Druin predicts one of the biggest impacts of the digital library will be to empower youngsters who are dependent on adults for their learning experiences. "Kids have such a mind of their own, and we give them so few tools that enable them to be in control. The goal is to put kids back in control of some small piece of their life so they get a sense of 'Aha, I can do this. This is mine.' "
Kahle hopes the library will make high-quality children's literature more accessible across cultural lines. "There is no greater responsibility on a generation than to put the best of all human culture with reach of its children," he said. "That is fundamentally what this project is about."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company