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Schools, libraries embracing ebook technology

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(Herald Photos by Heidi Terry-Litchfield)
With varying degrees of success, area schools and libraries have begun making use of ebooks like the Nook and similar devices. The hand-held devices can compactly replace a whole stack of textbooks, lightening the load for students.

In today’s technology-driven age, where children have grown up in front of computers and video games, challenging them to read a book has become more difficult.

Marian Parker, librarian at Seneca Grade School decided to test electronic books with students last school year in a pilot program to see how they would respond to getting their reading from a hand-held device.

“Last year’s pilot program had 18 Kindles, which were used by seventh- and eighth-grade students,” Parker said. “This year, we have 106, and have six more ordered.”

Each member of the eighth grade was offered one to use in language arts class, with parent and student contracts acknowledging the replacement value if they were lost or damaged.

“We sent out a user agreement and all the parents signed it,” she said. “So the entire class is using them.”

In addition to the ones assigned to eighth-grade students, there are others that are used in the seventh-grade language arts classes.

“I love the Kindle, my husband and I each have one,” Parker said. “As I used it, I thought there was some way we could use them at school.”

About 90 percent of the Kindles were purchased with grant money, while the others were purchased with library funds. The students are able to use them to read the library books assigned as part of their class work.

“The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins seem to be very popular right now,” Parker said. “With the Kindle, we are able to let more children have the book than we would if we had to purchase the hard copies.”

There is also a cost savings with the ebooks they have purchased. Each title may be used on up to six Kindles on the same account, allowing for more copies with less cost.

“Initially the hardware is expensive,” Parker said. “But by sharing the books, we will save money over the hard copies.”

Parker said the additional features of the Kindle also allow children to look up words they don’t understand as they are reading.

“They can look up words, highlight words or phrases, and some books have text-to-speech so they can listen and follow along,” she said.

One of the features Parker feels is most important is the ability to change font size from very small to very large, allowing those who may have had difficulty reading a standard book font the ability to enlarge it for easier reading.

“We looked at how other schools were using them and let the teachers take them home first,” she said. “I think the kids are reading more with the device, especially the eighth graders — they are reading reading reading.”

Not all school districts have found success with the electronic books, however.

Minooka Grade School District 201 purchased several Sony Portable Digital Books in 2008 as a pilot program for use by their sixth-grade students, who could check them out from the library.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Stef Palaniuk said the response was not what he expected.

“Some people really liked them, but after surveying the students, we found they weren’t as interested in them as we thought they would be,” Palaniuk said. “We have not expanded our program.”

Currently the Sony Digital Books are being used as another tool in the library and are being checked out by students.

Since the original digital books hit the market at costs in excess of $200, several makers have come out with their own, bringing prices down to the $150 range.

The Kindle is offered by Amazon and uses a format specific to Amazon; Barnes and Noble has released the Nook, which allows for several different formats, including .pdf files.

Some of the more popular brands allow the user to listen to MP3s while reading, and some have wifi capability, which allows access to the Internet.

The readers aren’t just for students. Many adults are using the readers in their day-to-day lives, rather than carrying around a stack of books.

While the cost of a book for an e-reader is comparable to the softcover books found in the store, soon library patrons may be able to check out books for their e-readers from the Morris Area Public Library and other area libraries.

“We are currently running a trial on ebooks for the Nook and other e-readers, other than the Kindle, which uses it’s own format of book,” Nancy Wilson of the Morris library said. “We have four staff and six patrons trying out the program.”

At the end of September, they will be making a decision on whether to join a group of other libraries in using the program, which would allow library card holders to check out books for their e-readers, iPods, iPhones, and computers online.

“It’s mainly nonfiction and fiction bestsellers,” Wilson said. “Our library has budgeted for the program should we decide to do it.”

Library patrons will need an Internet connection and the software required to go online and download the book they wish to read.

“It’s very quick once you have the software downloaded,” she said. “It will allow patrons to check out books when it is convenient for them, even if it’s convenient at midnight.”

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