Today I was discussing the exciting potential of wireless for libraries and schools with colleague David Rothman, who promotes the visionary Teleread project. He contacted me, as did a couple librarians and media researchers, following my unkind review of computerized library catologs.
What David and I were discussing was more than an online catalog, but a whole online library. Imagine that instead of (or in addition to) large, clunky PCs in classrooms, students could be given handhelds or other small computers. And that anywhere they sat in school–library, classroom, locker room, cafeteria–they could quickly call up any of several thousand books in an online library.
No more waiting for a reserved book to be read by the other 25 classmates before you can get your hands on it. No more pockets of dead time where you’re waiting around with nothing useful to do. (On the other hand, I’d be reluctant to promote this wireless system if it detracted from kids’ informal face-to-face banter.) No more class projects where you have to leave the scene of hands-on work–like a garden or a lab–and return to the classroom to look up the background literature.
The technology for this library-everywhere-you-go system is all available. Books would have to be converted to XML, but several publishers (including O’Reilly) are doing that now. The server would be the responsibility of the school library. A Wi-Fi 802.11 network would extend the reach of the server throughout the school.
David also suggested that cities with Wi-Fi community networks could offer the school library to people in their homes. This would be true at least where there are neighborhood schools (and might give new reasons to maintain neighborhood schools). Parents could educate themselves as well as help their kids with homework.
The Wi-Li is a variation of Rothman’s Teleread idea, which calls for the development of rugged, low-cost computers for kids and the creation of libraries where books could be downloaded. While there are advantages of keeping a book on one’s personal computer (the original Teleread idea) it should be supplemented by vast virtual libraries.
The problem faced by Teleread and Wi-Li is the same chicken-and-egg problem faced by AOL Time Warner and all the other telecom players. Until the content is present, there’s little incentive to build the networks, and until the networks are built, there’s little reason to convert and upload the content. But vision and public pressure should be able to break the ice. The chance to make these a reality is coming closer and closer.
Can virtual libraries for children be created?