Americans spend many millions learning how to drive cars safely, fly planes, dance, sing, play cards, master computer programs, and so on—the list is endless.
But something is missing if they are to be full-fledged learners in the digital era: true ebook literacy. And with appropriate professional development, who better to teach it than librarians and educators?
Traditional literacy by itself isn’t enough to get the most out of ebooks; far more is involved than just tapping a button to move on to the next page. K-12 students and other library patrons also need ebook literacy so they can cope with such issues as screen glare, optimal typography, and comprehension of content. Ebooks are like hearing aids or eyeglasses. Librarians and teachers should ask students and other patrons what hardware and software they are using to read digital books, then be able to make suggestions, including the possible use of different devices and apps.
Moreover, as noted elsewhere on this site, the endowment should promote libraries and books in a well-targeted way both online and offline—even individual titles—to increase the demand for ebook literacy instruction.
But where to begin, in teaching ebook literacy? Here’s what librarians, teachers, students, and other patrons need to know:
1. How to choose the right device for reading. An auto-repair guide with detailed drawings will not work on a little phone or even a small laptop. On the other hand, it will display well on a large tablet where a student can easily search for mentions of technical jargon or even see it instantly defined—just by pressing down on the words involved. All this sounds obvious. It is not, if we go by actual ebook use.
Beyond screen size, we need to consider the glare and eyestrain factors (especially for users who prefer not to read light text against a dark background). Too many ebook users are not doing the obvious and cranking down the screen brightness to a comfortable level. Alas, quite a few do not understand how bolder type could allow a lower level of brightness.
Another solution for many, not all, is to switch to an E Ink machine with front lighting, so the rays fall on the screen rather than beat against a user’s eyes. But that raises issues of its own. The text-to-background contrast ratio is not as good as paper’s. Commendably, Amazon just added a special bold font to its more recent E Ink Kindles. That is not the optimal solution—it would be better to be able to adjust the level of boldness on multiple fonts, the way Kobo E Ink machines do. Of course, the all-text bold is still progress. But how many users will try the new Kindle font? Here’s where librarians and teachers can step in.
Countless other variables exist for them to consider. How close is the screen resolution to paper, for example? Resolution on recent Amazon tablets is actually worse than on earlier models—the company is caring more and more about video and less and less about books.
Another variable is whether screen color can be changed. Some of Kobo’s ereaders provide for a pink or even red background, which can lessen eyestrain and deal with the sleep disruption that many ascribe to use of electronic devices. E Ink, the manufacturer of the Kobo screen, will be making this capability available to other brands using e-paper.
Needless to say, when discussing hardware issues, all kinds of questions arise in regard to the digital divide. How to accommodate the poor, rural people, minorities, the elderly, and others without either the right gadgets or the knowledge to use them properly? That is one more reason for the proposed digital endowment. By way of the technology and related guidance from teachers and librarians, we could greatly expand their reading options and make the very act of reading more enjoyable to begin with.
2. Proper use of the right typography for an individual, beyond the boldness issue. Unfortunately Amazon, B&N, and other large vendors do not provide all the typographical options needed. Part of ebook literacy is to encourage users to speak out for themselves and change this. Due to proprietary formats and use of digital rights management, current typographical choices are often limited for typical users—wedded to the machines and apps associated with a specific bookstore. Only after years of pleas from users did Amazon add the all-text bold option to Kindles despite the millions of Americans with contrast-sensitivity issues. The result of frequent vendor indifference to basic ergonomics is that people do not enjoy ebooks as much as they could.
To understand the possibilities that major vendors are denying their customers, load an app called Moon+ Reader Pro onto an Android phone or tablet. You will find a number of customization possibilities missing from Kindles and the like. For example, Moon lets you smoothly adjust the size of the type rather than living with presets. You can even delete lines between paragraphs. For a full list of Moon+ Reader Pro’s features, see a Wikipedia entry. Why can’t ebook hardware and apps from Amazon and other major vendors offer a menu for advanced users who would love Moon-style features? Among the advanced people are the heaviest readers, the ones most likely to buy books.
3. Techniques for reading in a disciplined way. The reading of books on phones and tablets is far more common than on dedicated Kindle-style devices. By learning how to turn off notifications from Facebook and other social media, along with other distractions, people can better focus on ebooks. But many tablet owners, perhaps even most, don’t realize the various options they have for switching off the offending alerts—whether it’s through the built-in software or third-party programs or simply switching off the WiFi. Parents can even control their children’s access to nonbook apps, as discussed along with much else in Cellphone book clubs: A new way to promote literacy, technology, family and community.
But elimination of distractions isn’t the only key to reading in a disciplined way on ebook devices. Many readers consume etext—whether books or Web articles—while scanning in a F pattern. Their eyes may scan all the lines at the start of a book chapter (the top line of the F) but fail to read fully the lines that follow up to a certain point (the second, shorter line). No, this is not an inherent shortcoming of the technology. It’s simply a matter of knowing one’s weaknesses and consciously working to eliminate them. One solution for some tablet and cell phone owners might be line-by-line vertical scrolling. That allows them to keep their eyes on the same spot if they want or at least not move on to new material until they are ready. Page breaks, moreover, are no longer breaks; and vertical scrolling also can simplify such tasks as highlighting and notes. Due to the technical limitations of E Ink devices, vertical scrolling is not an option for their owners. But this will most likely change in time as the screens grow faster. Bookari (compatible with Adobe-DRMed library books), Moon+ Reader Pro, the text-to-speech oriented Voice Dream Reader, and other superior ereading apps offer vertical scrolling. By making users more aware of possibilities like vertical scrolling, as well as by leaning on vendors to offer those options when possible, librarians and educators can encourage good, disciplined ereading habits.
Also, text to speech and audiobooks should be used properly. There is a place for them, especially for students and others with print impairments. TTS use and audiobooks are simply different forms of “reading,” whether for school, work, or pleasure, and there is no need to feel guilty over audiobooks becoming a major recreational pursuit. But at the same time, students should develop traditional reading skills to the extent they can and appreciate the efficiencies of old-fashioned reading. That still could mean using text to speech as a way to edge into difficult books, then switching over to the usual reading once they have a sense of what the book is about. Here again, the issue becomes discipline.
Finally, especially as books become more networked, both with Web content and other books, students should be able to prioritize in deciding which links to click on. Once again, this is part of disciplined reading—a core precept of ebook literacy.
CRITICAL THINKING: THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF DISCIPLINED EREADING
Most of all, just as with Web content, librarians and educators should warn students against undiscerning consumption of problematic “information” in book form or any other. That means acquiring the discipline to check other sources on the same topic and find out about the writer from independent sources. Readers can also look for internal contradictions and go to anti-myth sites like Snopes.com. The Wayback Machine, as noted in eSchool News, can show older pages to help students determine if political groups have quietly changed their positions on issues. Even so-called reputable sources can be wrong, but readers will never know if they cannot think on their own.
The endowment will encourage approaches identical or similar to the one found in the Reading Like a Historian curriculum from the Stanford History Education Group. It could pay for training of librarians and educators in curricula of the kind described in Fighting Fake News: How libraries can lead the way on media literacy (Marcus Banks, American Libraries, December 27, 2016). Another resource is the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
While media literacy is important, whatever the medium, we must be thoughtful in striving for it. To understand the pitfalls, see Did Media Literacy Backfire?, by Danah Boyd. She writes: “Addressing so-called fake news is going to require a lot more than labeling. It’s going to require a cultural change about how we make sense of information, whom we trust, and how we understand our own role in grappling with information. Quick and easy solutions may make the controversy go away, but they won’t address the underlying problems.” Exactly. This is no small part of why we need a national digital library endowment to encourage literacy in all forms.
No, media literacy by itself is not enough. Our students need context, too—scaffolding—which they can acquire not only through textbooks but also through recreational reading. School librarians can encourage reading outside class, one way students can boost academic skills in general. The endowment will help increase the number of K-12 librarians in poorer districts most in need of them.