I agree with Annie Murphy Paul’s July article in School Library Journal, “Eight Reasons Why Print Trumps Digital for Reading,” and here are some additional points she did not include:
Support for adult-child interaction is the primary criteria for assessing the value of early literacy materials. It is fully established that the adult-child relationship is the foundation of healthy, early child development in all its dimensions, including literacy development, and by this key standard, books are exemplary while the ebook present problems.
It is the book, not the ebook, that invites and sustains parent-child interaction and the personal and intimate experience of sharing and talking through reading. Books need us. The book needs the adult to hold it, turn pages, and to teach those not-so-easy motor skills. The book is completely controlled by the child or adult, not software. It is the book that is silent, every time, without the voice of the adult or child. It is the book that sits, enticingly, in the child’s field of vision, until the child might notice it, bring it to her parent and say, “Read this one, Mommy.”
And it is the book that presents the beauty of art in various dimensions, free of the shiny, lit, shrunken uniformity of the screen. On this point, I cannot emphasize enough how much better the book is at presenting art and how important this is to developing the love of reading—and art—for the child and the adult and the adult and child together.
Ebooks, on the other hand, are a form of screen time. They require the use of devices that are built for isolated, solitary, “personal” experience. I see it constantly with children—and adults—everywhere and with all types of screen use: screen time is almost always alone time. The way the reading device is used by both children and parents detracts from adult-child interaction, which makes ebook use a problem for early literacy and child development. We don’t know that anything librarians say or do will significantly change the solitary nature of device use.
I also see constantly when parents want to connect with their child, they “step away from the device.” I see families communicating, moving, and reading away from screens. I think that the socially engaging quality of books explain why parents prefer books by a huge margin, according to 2011 and 2012 Pew Research surveys. The human, rich, real world qualities of librarians, library programs, and library books are more valuable than ever to help children and families counter the effects of screen time and support adult-child relationships.
Professional librarians need science to identify best practices for supporting early literacy and to protect our credibility. Only books possess the body of research, as backed by an American Association of Pediatrics article published in June 2014 about literacy and early childhood, required to guide our recommendations for reading materials that best support early literacy development. The frequent references I read regarding the “promise,” “potential,” and “possibilities” of ebooks—or any technology use with young children—are expressions of hopeful thinking without sufficient research.
Presently, we can be informed by what teachers, psychologists, pediatricians, and researchers are saying about the overuse of screens and concerns related to reading from screens. Information to this end is readily available. (Consider: ”The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” “Researchers Voice Concern Over Ebooks’ Effect on Reading Comprehension,” and ”Being a Better Online Reader.”) Librarians have an important role in fostering the early habits that will best help children avoid harms that may accrue later, if not immediately, and support lifelong reading.
Librarian skills in assessing sources of information on this topic are as important as ever. I can see how businesses heavily market ebooks, because ebooks provide higher profit margins. Many who write and speak about technology use and children are in enterprises or careers that depend on technology use. I hope librarians will become more aware of these pressures and maintain our commitment to best practices.
I agree that parents could benefit from librarians as “media mentors.” For this role, I agree with Aaron Schmidt, a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx, who wrote last year in Library Journal, about putting people first and keeping technology subservient to goals, such as literacy, without making technology itself the goal. In other words, use technology to serve people rather than trying to fit people into technology. Books are the right technology that fit young children. As parent educators, I think we know that children will benefit if they follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, which limit total media use, including ebook use. We can help children by disseminating and explaining these guidelines, encouraging parents to follow them, and finding ways to help parents follow them. Advocating the principle “Don’t insert technology when the real-world experience is better” is wise guidance for parents and children that will help them all through life—but especially with regard to books and early literacy.
Kathy Kleckner is a children’s librarian in Minnesota. She is passionate about children’s picture books and conscientious about helping children become readers. She has experience in academic, school, bookmobile, urban, and suburban libraries.