A (digital) library ... in your pocket?

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are paper-bound books destined to go the way of the card catalogue? (image attribution at bottom of this blog posting)

Amazon, the company behind the Kindle, perhaps the world's most famous e-reader, recently announced an international version of its digital book reading device that will allow users to connect via 3G to download content in over 100 countries.   The early success of the Kindle, together with products like the Sony Reader, and the excitement over recently announced products like the Nook and Plastic Logic e-reading devices (Wikipedia has a nice list of these things), portends profound changes to the way we consume and distribute reading materials going forward.  The excellent (and highly recommended) Mobile Libraries blog explores what all of this might mean for one of most venerable of all information gathering, curation and dissemination institutions: the library. While Mobile Libraries documents issues related to how e-books and the like may transform the roles of the library in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America and Asia, there is no clear equivalent information resource highlighting what such advances might mean for developing countries.  But, in various ways, many people and projects are hard at work exploring such issues.

The release this week of the WikiReader, a low-cost, battery-powered device that aims to out the 'wikipedia in your pocket', is just one example of the flourishing innovations relevant to developing world contexts that are stretching the concepts of what an 'ebook' or 'e-reader' is -- or might be in the future.  Together with netbooks, smartphones and some devices for which we don't yet have names, products like WikiReader are challenging many long-held assumptions about what types of ICTs should be considered for use in schools, especially in developing countries.  In some ways, the WikiReader can be seen as a miniaturized version of eGranary Digital Library, an offering of the WiderNet project out of the University of Iowa (USA).  WiderNet has been working for a number of years with universities and communities in Africa (and elsewhere) to provide millions of digital educational resources (not just the Wikipedia) to institutions lacking adequate Internet access.  While the pace of the roll-out of broadband Internet is quickening throughout much of the developing world, it will take many many years for this to impact rural areas in most countries in any substantial way.  Therefore, the eGranary folks believe, it might be more cost-effective and impactful in the short run to drop in massive amount of digital content via a drive stored on a university or community network than to undertake the costly and time consuming process of improving connectivity in many areas.

There is indeed a compelling logic to such beliefs. While improvements in broadband are happening quickly, improvements in storage are happening even more quickly -- and it is perhaps this trend of increasingly cheap memory that will be more immediately relevant to education systems in many places for the near future.  Back in 2007, a vice president at Google noted that, since 1982, the price of data storage has fallen by a factor of 3.6 million, and that "if this trend continues, and the cost of storage continues to decrease, we estimate that somewhere around 2020, all the world's content will fit inside an iPod, and all the world's music would sit in your palm as early as 2015."

Whether or not this comes to pass as predicted, the trendline here is clear.  So: If the costs of storing digital content continue to drop precipitously, and if you believe (as many do) the the ICT device of choice for most people in the developing world will be a mobile phone (or some such small device) what might this mean for the future of libraries in these places?

Some people question whether this is a relevant question at all, skeptical why anyone would want to read anything at length on a small device so small that it fits in the palm of your hand. Developments in diverse parts of the world suggest that people are indeed willing to do this. The most cited example comes from Japan, where five of the top ten best-selling novels in 2007 were keitai shousetsu.  These "cell phone novels"  were originally written and published to phones via text messaging, for the most part by and for young adults.   This phenomenon began in 2003, and has been slowly spreading to other countries in Asia such as South Korea and China.   An incipient trend is now in evidence in South Africa as well.  While it has remained a decidedly small niche in other markets, keitai shousetsu and equivalents demonstrate that people are indeed willing to read content on devices as small as a mobile phone. 

It is interesting to note that many of these novels, at least in the early days, were actually written (via SMS!) as well, pointing to the fact that small handheld devices like this are potential authoring tools as well. The potential of people to author content on their mobile phone is something being explored by the International Children's Digital Library, an innovative initiative started by researchers at the University of Maryland (USA) to build "a digital library of outstanding children's books from around the world and supporting communities of children and adults in exploring and using this literature through innovative technology designed in close partnership with children for children." The ICDL has been working as part of a World Bank project in Mongolia to explore the potential relevance of digital content for children and young students in the this country of three million people sandwiched between Russia and China. Noting the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in places like ICDL recently released a free iPhone app called StoryKit as a way to investigate how such devices can not only be used to consume digital content, but to create it as well. Research around issues of how children and students use mobile phones to read is on-going and we hope to comment on preliminary results (from ICDL and other thought leaders in this area, like the Shuttleworth Foundation and Meraka Institute in South Africa) on this blog as they emerge.  

Where this all of us may lead, no one knows, but the idea that students might be able to come to school with a (digital) library in their pocket is, with each passing month, less and less the stuff of science fiction. Le livre est mort, vive le livre!

Note: The image at the top of this blog posting of the card catalogue files at the University Library of Graz (Austria) taken by Dr. Marcus Grossler comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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