President Obama lent his voice to the subject of e-book access for students in April when he announced the Open E-books Initiative. Through Open E-books, $250 million in popular e-books from major publishers will be made available to children in need via a specially developed app. The project is a joint effort involving the nonprofit literacy agency First Book, the American Library Association, the New York Public Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and Urban Libraries Council. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is supporting the team of partners in the initiative. IMLS is investing $5 million to finance the development of the e-reader app, as well as other tools that will enable easier access to digital content and e-books.
“We were drawn into an existing partnership between the White House and IMLS,” says First Book president and CEO Kyle Zimmer, explaining how her organization got involved. “They were looking for an organization to act as their filter and provide authentication so they knew that they were reaching the kids they were designing to reach.”
Zimmer said that she wanted First Book to be on board for several reasons. “We know this is an extraordinary opportunity to work with this administration, which has been consistently committed to the cause,” she says. “And every day we lose kids. They get distracted and fall out of the sphere of influence. We desperately need to reach them. There is an urgency that all of us bring to our work.”
All the partners have been forging ahead, and Zimmer expresses special appreciation for the publishers. “The publishers are the heroes in the story,” she says. “They aren’t sitting on piles of money, but every time we ask them to donate on behalf of kids in need, they stand on their heads to make it happen. They stepped up with $250 million worth of content and that is amazing.”
She says that though the publishers were enthusiastic about participating, they had lots of questions. “They know this is a grand and important experiment,” she says. “But if we do these kinds of initiatives right and well, this will be a market expansion activity. If this inspires a new group of readers, it helps everyone.”
When everything is finalized, adults working with children in need can register with First Book. Kids will have free, unlimited access to the publisher-donated e-books as well as hundreds of public domain titles. The app will initially be available for iOS and Android platforms, and students can access it via school and library-loaned devices, or any devices they may have at home. Open E-books dovetails with the White House’s ongoing ConnectED initiative, which is working toward ensuring that 99% of American students have access to next-generation broadband by 2018. As part of the movement, various major tech companies are making donations of devices and services and also creating grant funds that teachers and librarians can apply for.
Open E-books is moving ahead quickly, and Zimmer said First Book has added a few new people to help with the workload, though a firm release date has not been set.
Zimmer says that First Book is in for the long haul and sees this as an ongoing mission beyond the Open E-books initiative. “The need for materials that are engaging and top quality for these kids is enormous,” she says. “We’ve given away 130 million [print] books over time, and we know it’s a drop in the bucket. But we don’t want to solve the print problem while the freight train of digital flies by us. The opportunity to link arms with formidable warriors [in these organizations] in an effort to provide equal education? There’s no way we’re letting this go in the short term. It’s going to be years in the making.”