Obama's ConnectED Library Challenge Brings E-books, Wi-Fi to Students

Through the magic of digital technology and a new federal program, even low-income kids can read any book in the world.

by / May 6, 2015

On April 30, President Barack Obama sat on a stool at Anacostia Library in Washington, D.C., and was interviewed by a sixth-grader. Before an audience of young students, the president answered questions, talked about his own relationship with reading and learning, and announced new programs centered around technology, libraries and education. One program, called the ConnectED Library Challenge, will bring more than $250 million in e-books to low income students and encourage the use of public libraries.

More than 30 cities and library districts committed to giving all their students library cards, while $2 billion in private-sector and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commitments, along with $1.5 million in annual investments, will create more access to the Internet through the deployment of new e-book apps, e-book licenses and Wi-Fi connectivity. The program is part of a larger drive to connect all American students to the Internet and give them access to any book they want, Obama said.

“All the young people here, I know you guys are working hard in school, but how well you do over the long term is going to depend on do you love reading, do you love learning, do you know how to find information, do you know how to use that information?" Obama told his audience. "And the way you learn to do that is by reading a lot and learning how to think about the material you’re reading. And you’ve got a lot of great teachers, but you’ve got to do it not just in the classroom, you've got to do it in life.”

The president recalled his own love of reading books like those written by Dr. Seuss, adventure stories like the Hardy Boys series, Treasure Island, the Lord of the Rings series, and classics like Of Mice and Men, and The Great Gatsby. He spoke of his love of science as a child, reading about planets and dinosaurs, and how he changed what he wanted to do with his life several times, first wanting to be an architect, then a basketball player, then a lawyer (which he became), and then a politician. He also told students that access to technology and knowledge is only half of the recipe for success.

“You can have the nicest computer in the world, and the best books in the world, but if you’re lazy and sitting around just playing video games, not really interested in it, well, you’re probably not going to be a great student,” Obama said. “And if you are curious and interested in learning, you’re going to make sure that you figure out a way to learn, no matter what. So we want to make sure that you have the best technology and the best information, but ultimately the most powerful engine for learning is between your ears and the attitude that you have about learning.”

The New York Public Library will release an e-reader app that allows access to hundreds of classic books and contributions from book publishers. Over the next three years, publishers including Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Candlewick, Bloomsbury, Lee & Low, Cricket Media and HarperCollins will release to low-income students access to thousands of titles. The Institute of Museum and Library Services will invest $5 million to support an e-reader app, the Digital Public Library of America’s librarian network will volunteer to curate content, and nonprofit FirstBook will authenticate and deliver content to qualified applicants.

It’s an exciting announcement, said Sari Feldman, president-elect of the American Library Association.

“We think that the president’s announcement on ConnectED and the goal of getting all school students to have public library cards is just a great opportunity to deepen the connection between libraries and schools," she said, "but also to ensure that kids are aware of and are using the nation’s libraries, which have become certainly great access points for books and other media, but also really dynamic learning environments that are bringing together talent – our wonderful staff that work in libraries, tools, and kids to work together on great collaborative projects.”

Feldman noted that children from affluent families are 10 times more likely to have books in the home compared with children living below the poverty line, making programs like these crucial for student success. That libraries will receive increased funding for Wi-Fi connectivity and digital services for visitors is equally critical today, she said.

“Today’s libraries have really become centers of community life and centers of community learning, increasingly dynamic learning places, especially for kids,” she said. “Libraries are introducing all kinds of new digital tools, convening groups around collaborative projects, and offering young people the opportunity to learn from mentors as well as to teach each other. Our staff has really changed in the way they work with our community, so where we used to be about what we have for people, today we’re much more about what we do for and with people. Models of using new digital tools to get kids connected to learning are deeply embedded in the way libraries are serving young people and kids are responding with tremendous enthusiasm.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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