The International Children’s Digital Library Takes the World Wide Web World-Wide


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As the Internet makes the world increasingly smaller, a new project attempts to use its power to open literary doors for children around the globe. The International Children's Digital Library (ICDL) launched in late 2002 with approximately 200 books from 27 cultures in 15 languages, targeted at children between the ages of 3 and 13. To date, it is the largest collection of international children's literature online. Over the next five years, the ICDL expects to include 10,000 titles representing more than 100 countries.

The ICDL (www.icdlbooks.org) is a joint venture of the Internet Archive and the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab. Supporting libraries include the Library of Congress, Helsinki University Library, Singapore National Library, Croatia National Library, and the Swiss Institute for Child and Youth Media. Participants include authors such as Alma Flor Ada, Summer Brenner, and Gerald McDermott and publishers such as Harper Collins, Scholastic Inc., and Getty Publications. The project has also received a five-year research grant from the National Science Foundation—the largest technology grant the NSF has awarded to a project for children.

Jane White, director of the ICDL, envisions the Library as a way to bring quality literature to children who may not otherwise have access to it, but their target audience is not solely the underprivileged or geographically remote; "Our target is anyone," she says. "It is every child, but it will be a different experience for each." She derides the technology industry for repeatedly releasing new services that are heralded as life changing and available to the public, but quickly shift to profit-driven. "Our mission is to hold the industry to the digital promise and part of that is that it would be free," she explains. "We are committed to securing the public domain for the Internet."

An international advisory committee of librarians and educators selects each text for the Library. "We want the user to feel like it is a curated collection of the best books out there for children, not a bookstore," says White. Unlike most digital collections, the ICDL includes books that are still under copyright as well as those available in the public domain. Copyrighted texts can be viewed using the Adobe eBook reader, which the ICDL recommends installing as a plug-in before using the Library. Commercial publishers are providing copyright materials to see if the Library will promote print sales. According to White, "We think that if you put the book out there, it will probably drive sales."

The Library has been designed entirely with children in mind and the ICDL Team even includes Child Design Partners ranging in age from 7 to 11. Research found that children prefer to search for books by color, shape, format, and how the story makes them feel. Based on their findings, the Library uses an entirely visual user interface. At this time, the Library cannot be searched using keywords, authors, or titles, although they hope to add that capability soon. Users search by clicking on parts of a globe or browsing by category. Search results are presented in the form of book covers and children can click on a cover to learn the title, author, original language of publication, and view a brief summary.

Children can also choose the format in which they read their selection. The ICDL allows them to choose a standard reader, a comic strip reader, a spiral reader, or an Adobe eBook reader. The comic strip reader shows thumbnails of all of the pages in horizontal strips so children can quickly determine whether the book is too advanced or too elementary for them. The spiral reader, which seems to be a favorite with children, presents the current page in the middle of the screen between two spirals of pages.

An unexpected benefit of the ICDL is that it has become a means of scanning and preserving texts. "This was never meant to be a preservation project," White has said, "but it's turning out to be a preservation project. Scanning is a really, really big issue." All books in the ICDL have been scanned uncompressed, in full color, in tiff format, at 300 dpi, cropped to the edge of the page, and with the front and back covers as the first and last pages. Some libraries chose to do their own scanning, but Octavo has been selected to be in charge of digital imaging for the ICDL.

The Library currently has very high system and bandwidth requirements, which limits who can benefit from the ICDL. In order to run the Library, you must have high-speed Internet access, at least 256MB of available RAM, and the Java Virtual Machine (a free download). The ICDL hopes to release another version by spring of 2003 with the same basic requirements as the current Web site. "We've got to lower the technological standards to hit all of our targets," White acknowledges. "This is not to be an elitist T1 library." She says that the difference between the ICDL and a commercial product is that they launched the equivalent of an alpha version whereas commercial products go through those stages before general release.

Other features the ICDL hopes to add include the ability to print books, increased search functionality, and versions of the Library in languages other than English. Future improvements aside, "a great society should have this material available," White says. "This is something we should be doing. If we have the resources available we should be doing something for children."

(www.archive.org; www.cs.umd.edu/hcil; www.icdlbooks.org)